Peter Aldous promotes the East of England all-party parliamentary group Budget submission and calls for investment in transport, infrastructure and the region's industrial strategy to unlock the economic potential of the region.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered promoting economic growth in the East of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The purpose of this debate is to highlight the enormous economic potential of the east of England and to put forward proposals for promoting growth, which can benefit people right across the region. In the past, East Anglians have perhaps been slow to come forward. We have hidden our light under a bushel, and thus the region has not secured the investment in infrastructure that is needed to transform what is already a highly successful economic region into a global leader. It is important that we now cast aside such shyness.
As we look beyond Brexit, the UK must strive to be the leader in a variety of fields. The east of England can help secure this goal, whether it is in the clean energy, agri-food, life sciences or information and communications technology sectors. The catalyst for this debate was the formation last December of the east of England all-party parliamentary group, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and I co-chair, and which last month launched its Budget submission, “Building together the foundations of more productivity, prosperity and inclusivity in the East of England”. Much of what I will say is based on the proposals set out in that publication.
What is the east of England? In some respects, it is an area without boundaries. It includes the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk as well as Cambridgeshire and what used to be Huntingdonshire, and it extends to parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, though owing to the post-war growth of London, it does not reach as far south as it used to. From the Minister’s perspective, I fear it does not include Watford—its inclusion would enable the region to claim a premiership football team, as the Town and the Canaries currently flounder.
The region is relatively flat—it is often described as the bread bowl of England—and made up of attractive villages and countryside, interspersed with popular market towns and larger towns and cities such as Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Peterborough and, on its southern boundaries, Chelmsford.
My hon. Friend is a fine bastion of our region and I congratulate him on securing this debate. The east of England is beautiful, but if we want to encourage tourism, people have to be able to get there. Does he agree that one of the fundamental challenges is our rail network in the eastern region?
My hon. Friend is spot on: infrastructure and communications, whether road, railway or digital, are hugely important to the region’s future. I shall briefly touch on that, and I am quite sure my colleagues will do likewise.
The east of England APPG held its inaugural meeting on 13 December 2017, when we were addressed by Lord Heseltine, who emphasised the need to think strategically and to consider how best to manage and spread economic growth across the whole region for the benefit of all people. The Budget submission has been supported and endorsed not just by MPs, but by business, local government and local enterprise partnerships. Signatories include British Sugar, Stansted Airport, AstraZeneca, Anglian Water, James Palmer, who is the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the Haven Gateway Partnership, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership and the East of England Local Government Association.
In arriving at our recommendations, we held evidence sessions and considered a range of innovative ideas as to how to promote and sustain economic growth, including proposals from Lord Adonis; Councillor David Finch, who is the leader of Essex County Council; and Mayor James Palmer, who is working up plans for much-needed infrastructure improvements through land value capture. The recommendations that we are putting forward should be regarded not as a wish list, but instead as a new way of working and getting things done—business and Government, both national and local, working together to secure investment that ensures the whole of the east of England realises its full potential.
It is important to highlight the enormous economic potential in the east of England. We are one of the fastest-growing regions, in terms of both population and economy. With a population of 6.1 million, the region is growing rapidly at a pace that is second only to London. In 2016, the east of England was one of just three UK regions to contribute more in tax than it received in public moneys. Despite this, public expenditure in the region was £8,155 per capita in 2017, which is less than the UK average of £9,159.
We are a frontrunner in attracting business. In 2017, the east of England saw the largest increase in business numbers of all UK regions. We are at the forefront of global excellence in innovation. The region is a centre for nationally and internationally recognised expertise in sectors such as life sciences, ICT, agri-tech and low-carbon energy supply. The corridor from Cambridge to Milton Keynes and Oxford has the potential to be the UK’s Silicon Valley. We are a jobs powerhouse—total employment is expected to rise by 7% over the next 15 years—and we complement and enhance the position of London as a world city.
Significant investment is already taking place in the east of England. By 2020, all trains in the area served by Greater Anglia will be brand-new, not second-hand hand-me-downs from other regions. Some £1.5 billion is being spent on removing what is probably the worst road bottleneck in the whole country: the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge. A further £300 million is being spent on schemes along the A47 from Peterborough to Lowestoft. The Norwich northern distributor road is open, and vital new bridges are being built in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft—the latter is in my constituency.
There is a need to join up the dots and to think strategically, so that the whole region can benefit from those investments. There are also challenges that are best met at regional level, such as climate change and water resource management. We are not only a very dry region but a low-lying one, with a coast where the battle with rising sea levels has been raging for millennia. The recommendations in the APPG report provide the foundations to promote growth in three areas: transport, infrastructure and industrial strategy. I shall briefly go through them.
With regard to transport, we recommend that the
“Government should support England’s Economic Heartland and Transport East—the region’s two sub-national transport bodies—to become statutory bodies.”
By doing so, we will be better able to prioritise, fund and then deliver road, rail and air transport improvements.
“councils should have greater discretionary powers to encourage housing delivery…Further action is recommended to free-up finances to build affordable homes at scale”
through a variety of measures, including
“relaxing Housing Revenue Account borrowing…Ministers should explore innovative funding options that could help deliver infrastructure to enable new housing, either by direct council investment or by leveraging in other funding…Government should facilitate greater cooperation between developers, infrastructure providers, and local planning authority providers to improve housing delivery.”
The importance of digital connectivity cannot be overestimated. The need for a full fibre network to all homes and businesses across the whole region is incredibly important. It is an absolute must, if the region is to compete globally post Brexit. If necessary, greater powers should be granted to Ofcom to ensure that commercial operators do not just concentrate on the larger urban areas.
With regard to our regional industrial strategy, we should be focusing on our flagship industries: life sciences, agri-tech, ICT and clean energy. If necessary, Ofcom should be granted greater powers to ensure that commercial operators do not concentrate just on the larger urban areas. Our regional industrial strategy should tackle the productivity gap, which is a particular problem for the region. The local enterprise partnerships are key to developing and enacting an effective industrial strategy for the region, because local private and public sector leaders best understand the region’s opportunities and challenges and are best placed to co-ordinate the promotion of the various sectors to ensure consistency. The education strategy should focus on helping local people to develop transferrable and adaptable skills.
I have sought to provide a framework, albeit in an outline form, for promoting and spreading growth across the east of England. There is a great deal of flesh to put on the bones, and I anticipate that colleagues will do that by highlighting the opportunities and constraints in their areas. Now is only the beginning of this campaign. There are many proposals in the APPG’s report, and they deserve careful thought and implementation. I ask the Minister to signpost the roadway that we need to go down to ensure that the east of England is a global leader and that we enhance productivity and increase prosperity for all those who live and work there.
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