Speaking in the Budget Debate, Peter Aldous calls for investment in infrastructure at the port of Lowestoft, support for regional transport schemes in the East of England and help for regeneration of the high street.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. Last week’s Budget focused on two issues: the UK’s co-ordinated initial response to the serious threat posed by coronavirus to the UK economic outlook, and a significant increase in public spending to raise productivity, promote growth, and spread its proceeds to all corners of the UK—a process that has been dubbed “levelling up”. That is particularly important in my constituency of Waveney, which is the most easterly constituency in the UK. I shall be focusing on the second issue, but such is the gravity of the first—it is increasingly apparent that this will not be a short-term blip—that the two issues are increasingly becoming intertwined.
It is right to increase public spending in this way, although it is not without risk. It is right because as we leave the EU, we need the economy to be firing on all cylinders, not spluttering along in third gear. Our productivity remains stubbornly low, and in many places our infrastructure is crumbling. We have a host of challenges to address, such as climate change and promoting the green economy, the crisis on the high street, and the urgent need to improve social mobility, so that young people, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances, have the opportunity to realise their full potential. Added to that cocktail, we must now support people and businesses to get through the enormous challenge of coronavirus.
It is important to emphasise the political case for this about-turn. The Brexit vote, which in many respects was repeated last December, was a cry for change. The UK economy as a whole has performed well over the past 40 years, but the proceeds of growth have not been evenly distributed, but rather concentrated in London and the south-east. For so many people, and so many communities, the improvement in our national economic performance has passed them by. They voted for a different way of doing things, and we must now deliver for them.
That different course is not without risk, and it is important that the Government provide reassurance that in the long-term, the UK is still committed to the sustainable and responsible management of our finances. When it comes to infrastructure, the right schemes must be chosen—not vanity projects, but productive and growth-enhancing schemes that are a catalyst for private sector investment. We must ensure that we have the capacity to deliver those projects: the right skills, enough engineers, project managers and planners, and a ready supply of steel, concrete and tarmac. If we do not do that, prices will escalate and schemes will not be delivered on time.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, and although we differed on the question of Brexit, I agree with many of his points. Does this current crisis reinforce the fact that we must also ramp up UK production and UK ownership of production, and have more British-owned firms? In times of crisis such as this, production overseas and overseas ownership create difficulties. Although we obviously need inward investment, we must balance that with UK ownership.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to a large extent, and we need more companies to be investing in, and based in, the UK. It is important to have UK companies, but I am also proud when companies from around the world invest in the UK. That is something we should be pleased about.
Let me return to infrastructure projects and the need to have the right skills and supply of materials. In 2014, funding was provided for six schemes on the A47 from Lowestoft through Norfolk to Peterborough. Six years later, five of those schemes have yet to see any work starting on the ground. We must ensure that planning and legal frameworks are fit for purpose. The third crossing project in Lowestoft will bring about great positive change to the town. It is an oven-ready scheme—we are ready to go, yet we still await a planning decision that should have been made more than three months ago.
I wish to highlight three aspects of levelling up. First, coastal communities have been left behind in recent decades, but they have so much to offer to UK plc. In Lowestoft, there is a compelling case for investment in the port, which occupies a strategic location. It lies in close proximity to one of the UK’s most productive fishing grounds, from which, as we leave the EU, we have a great opportunity to land more fish and to revive the local industry.
There is a huge opportunity as we leave the European Union; we will gain much more fish for our fishermen. We must ensure that we not only land those fish but process them. We also need a great marketing ploy across the country to encourage people to eat many more different types of fish, so we do not have to export quite as much and we eat more of our own fish.
My hon. Friend is spot on. To make the most of this opportunity, we need to invest in infra- structure—in port infrastructure, markets and processing factories. That would be so much help to coastal communities that have been left behind.
In Lowestoft, we are close to the main cluster of offshore wind farms in UK coastal waters. We are also an area of the southern North sea UK continental shelf, which has an important role to play in the transition to the low-carbon economy, and where there will be an enormous amount of work in the decommissioning of gas and oil facilities over the next decade.
The Budget places much emphasis on free ports. It is good news that the Government recognise the important role that ports play, but it is vital that free ports add to the UK’s trade, making our ports more attractive than their international competitors, rather than diverting business from one UK port to another.
Coastal communities along the East Anglian coast face a significant challenge from coastal erosion and storm surges. The sea does not just damage homes and businesses; ultimately, it destroys them. The Lowestoft flood defence scheme will remove that threat. At present, it is only part funded, so it is good news that the Budget recognises the threat of coastal erosion, provides an additional £5.2 billion for flood defences and includes an undertaking to carry out a review of the Green Book.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend might add to his thinking on this subject support for the internal drainage boards, which do such great work in the fens in particular, including in his constituency. Will he implore the Government to ensure that the Environment Agency works with the drainage boards rather than against them, as I am afraid it sometimes does?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I have internal drainage boards in my constituency, although I sense they may not be such big players as those in the fens in his constituency. From what I see of them, however, they are the ones who know the local area best and are best placed to come up with tailored, bespoke solutions.
My hon. Friend briefly mentioned the Green Book. One of the reasons the A64 in my constituency has not been dualled is that, according to Highways England, it was competing with the Oxford to Cambridge corridor and the lower Thames crossing. How ludicrous is that? How easy would he feel explaining to his constituents that such an iniquitous situation is baked into the system for deciding where money is invested?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The Green Book is long overdue a complete overhaul. It has held back communities all around the country—those we are looking to help with their issues—for far too long. It is right that we are now getting on with giving it a complete, radical overhaul.
My second request to the Government is not to forget the east. Our region is a net contributor to the Treasury, notwithstanding that at present we get poor local government, education and transport funding settlements. With the right investment, we could deliver so much more. The New Anglia local enterprise partnership recently published its report “Delivering an infrastructure revolution in Norfolk and Suffolk”, which outlines 12 connectivity infrastructure improvements that will boost productivity and make us global leaders in clean growth. I will not list the “clean dozen”, but I urge the Government to study these compelling schemes closely and to respond positively.
The third aspect of levelling up is to highlight the threat to our towns and their high streets, which are the heart of local economies all around the UK. There is an urgent need for towns to reinvent themselves. With the towns fund, the Government have recognised that, and Lowestoft is one of 101 towns eligible to bid for money that can be used to promote change and attract inward investment. That needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive reform of, and quite probably a replacement for, business rates. It is good news that the Government are committed to a fundamental review, although we have been talking about that for a long time and we now need to get on with it.
Investment in bricks and mortar and in concrete and steel is very important, but it is investment in people that matters most. The fact that the Government recognise the importance of further education in achieving levelling up is extremely good news. The additional £1.5 billion for capital investment in further education colleges and the £5 billion national skills fund to improve adult technical skills are welcome, and it is very good news for colleges like East Coast College, which last week achieved a good Ofsted rating. Those announcements follow on from the increase in revenue funding for 16 to 18 education that was announced last autumn, although there is still some way to go to get that day-to-day funding up to a sustainable level that will enable colleges to provide the full education, training and support needed to properly prepare young people for the workplace.
In conclusion, I welcome the Budget and I support its ambitions. I believe we are pursuing the right course. That said, there are hazards, obstacles and pitfalls lying immediately in front of us. It is important that the Government are flexible, and prepared to adapt and vary policy to meet challenges that will suddenly present themselves.
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