31 January 2023
Peter Aldous leads debate on levelling up in the East of England

Peter Aldous leads a Westminster Hall debate on progress on the Government’s 12 levelling up missions in the East of England.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered progress on the Government’s levelling up missions in the East of England.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, which comes a year after a similar debate, when the opportunities and challenges facing the east of England were also considered through the prism of levelling up.

Last February the Government published their White Paper, “Levelling Up the United Kingdom”, in which they set out 12 levelling-up missions, with targets to be achieved by 2030. Last month, in December, the all-party parliamentary group for the east of England, which I co-chair with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), published a report in conjunction with the East of England Local Government Association and various private sector partners that analysed confidence in the region in achieving those targets.

In summary, the report found that there was high confidence in achieving three of the levelling-up missions: employment and pay, research and development, and wellbeing. There was medium confidence in achieving four of the missions: improving digital connectivity, delivering pride in place, reducing crime and widening devolution. However, there is low confidence in five policy areas, many of which are the most important to the people of, and the prospects for, the east of England: improved educational attainment, more skills, better transport, longer, healthier living, and more affordable housing to buy and rent.

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)

The hon. Member is doing an excellent job of making the case for the east of England. One of the five areas of concern he referenced was transport. Does he agree that it is essential to keep up the pressure for important rail improvements at Ely and Haughley junctions, to restore four trains per hour to London Stansted, to secure East West Rail and to ensure that affordable, reliable bus services become the norm rather than the exception across the region?

Peter Aldous 

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I greatly enjoy working with him on the APPG. He is correct to raise those issues. I will comment on the rail issues in passing a little later, but they are vital to the east of England and to the whole UK.

I will comment in a little more detail on the five issues where there is low confidence and on what needs to be done so that we can get on course to deliver the 2030 targets. I anticipate that colleagues will home in on areas and issues that are important to them and their constituents. I should add that each of the issues warrants a debate of its own, and I am conscious that I will only scratch the surface of each mission.

Earlier this month the Government published the results of round 2 of the levelling-up fund. In the two rounds that have taken place so far, there have been 12 awards in the east of England, with a total value of £252.5 million. In both rounds we secured the fourth lowest amount of funding in the UK. Although, on an allocation per head basis, the situation has improved significantly, from £14 per head in the first round to £26 per head in the second, the east of England remains the region with the third lowest funding over both rounds.

It would be wrong to judge levelling up solely on the basis of those grants, but there is a worry that there is a lack of understanding in Whitehall of the challenges faced by many people in the east of England and of the exciting opportunities available in the region. With the right policies and support, the Government can help unlock these opportunities, which will benefit not just our region but the whole United Kingdom.

Down here in London, there may be a view that East Anglia is a comfortably-off region where levelling up does not apply. That is wrong, as we have relatively low levels of pay and there are deep pockets of deprivation in coastal communities such as Lowestoft, which I represent, in rural areas and in our larger cities and towns, such as Norwich and Ipswich.

Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)

Does my hon. Friend agree that some coastal regions around the country suffer from pockets of deprivation that are unrecognised because the central hinterland looks wealthy?

Peter Aldous 

My hon. Friend raises a good point. I am mindful of the fact that Jaywick, which is in his constituency, is statistically the most deprived area in the east of England. As he rightly says, pockets of deprivation can be hidden, because there are often areas of wealth within a few miles of them that camouflage that deprivation.

The east of England is an economic success story, and it is one of only three regions that are net contributors to the Exchequer. With the right policies and the necessary initiatives, we can significantly reduce poverty and create what, in effect, would be a global powerhouse, with specialist skills and expertise in such sectors as low-carbon energy, agritech, life sciences and sustainable fishing. Despite the drawbacks, a good start has been made locally in Waveney, and much of Lowestoft resembles a building site at present, with work well under way on the Gull Wing bridge—the long-awaited and much-needed third crossing of the port, which divides the town—as well as on the construction of permanent flood defences.

At this stage it is appropriate to pause and to recall that this evening is the 70th anniversary of the 1953 storm surge that hit our coast so cruelly, causing death, destruction and, ultimately, the demise of the beach village in Lowestoft. Today the region remains extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and the threat of climate change, but the drive towards net zero presents our economy with significant opportunities, which we must grasp. In Lowestoft, work is also getting under way on the various towns fund projects designed to regenerate the town centre and the surrounds. These projects, together with the flood defence scheme and the new bridge, currently represent a public investment in the town of in excess of £220 million.

Due to inflation, the shortage of raw materials and supply chain challenges, delivering such construction projects is not easy at present, and I commend the project managers at Suffolk County Council, Coastal Partnership East and East Suffolk Council for their hard work. Our task locally is to ensure that the developments act as a catalyst for private sector investment and that they fit in with and complement the overall economic strategy for the region.

I will now briefly touch on the five missions where there is low confidence of meeting the 2030 targets.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

The hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine are very alike from a fishing point of view. He mentioned 1953, which is also an anniversary for us back home: the MV Princess Victoria went down that year, and I was at the service on Sunday, so 1953 also resonates with us.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it sometimes appears that the regions that shout the loudest get the lion’s share of the funding? Does he agree that the Government should consider introducing a scoring matrix, which would ensure that each constituency sees projects delivered? That would mean that my constituency could level up with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Peter Aldous 

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there are significant similarities between the east of England—East Anglia—and Northern Ireland. As far as a matrix is concerned, I am not 100% sure about that, but there needs to be much better feedback from Government on why particular bids are not successful. We probably need to look at the criteria that bids must satisfy before we come on to the next round.

I will comment on the five missions where there is low confidence in achieving the 2030 targets, and I will start with transport. It should be highlighted at the outset that the east of England, with 17 ports and airports—including two freeports and Stansted—is very much a strategic gateway to the whole UK. If the east of England has a fit-for-purpose, 21st-century transport system, the whole UK benefits; unfortunately, we are some way from achieving that. There is concern that the transport needs of the region are being overlooked in Whitehall, notwithstanding the good, co-ordinated work of our two strategic transport bodies, Transport East and England’s Economic Heartland.

On the railways, it is vital that funding is provided for the upgrading of the Ely and Haughley junctions. That will improve connectivity from the Felixstowe-Harwich freeport to the midlands and the north, thereby facilitating levelling up in those regions. It will get freight off the busy A14 and help to provide additional capacity for passenger services into London Liverpool Street. Reinstating the four trains per hour from Liverpool Street to Stansted would help to attract investment from airlines and to secure new routes to destinations such as San Francisco and Boston—that is the one in Massachusetts, not our near neighbour in Lincolnshire, although that road also needs improvement.

It is estimated that, if such routes are opened up, they will deliver £95 million in new investment to the east of England. However, if we are to deliver such investment, there is a need for good transport links to and from the airport. Locally, the Waveney constituency is served by two railway lines—the East Suffolk and the Wherry—which must be upgraded to improve accessibility and connectivity. That is vital to deliver meaningful levelling up to coastal communities such as Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

I will turn now to education. Achieving good grades not only benefits the individuals themselves, improving their life chances and sense of wellbeing, but enhances the prospects of economic growth. Unfortunately, the overall level of attainment across the region is behind that in England as a whole. That is predominantly because the funding for east of England schools is way below the national average. The f40 is a group of the lowest-funded education authorities in England; it is a club to which one does not aspire to belong but, unfortunately, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Central Bedfordshire are all members. To ensure that young people in the east of England have a fair opportunity to realise their full potential, attention should be given to revising the funding formula that applies to rural schools, and a significant part of the increased funding of £4.6 billion over the next few years should be allocated to councils to support children and young people with educational needs and disabilities.

On skills, exciting opportunities are emerging in the east of England, such as in the energy sector and in further education colleges such as East Coast College, with its campuses in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. Such colleges are doing great work, but they are hamstrung by a lack of revenue funding and a shortage of teachers and trainers. The key recommendations in the APPG’s report when it comes to meeting the region’s future needs are that there should be much greater in-work education provision and participation in further education and skills training for adults; improvements in the overall quality of training; better access to training, taking into account rurality and transport challenges; and better alignment with employers’ needs.

Local skills improvement plans, which are being worked up by chambers of commerce, councils and local enterprise partnerships, are the vehicle for bringing about that sea change. However, when we look at energy—with the construction of Sizewell C, with 50% of the UK’s offshore wind fleet anchored off our coast and with the potential for hydrogen production distribution starting from the gas terminal at Bacton—there is concern that the scale of the opportunity has not been fully recognised and acknowledged. The fact that we do not have a bespoke institute of technology is a disappointment.

With regard to the health mission, insufficient regard is had to the fact that population of the east of England is increasing and that a higher percentage of elderly people are resident in the area than in other areas. Those factors apply added pressure to our health and care sector, which is grappling with unprecedented demand and a workforce crisis. There are also significant health inequalities, including an increasing number of children living in poverty and an alarming gap in healthy life expectancy between areas that are often only a few miles apart. To meet those challenges, Government policy should recognise the significant population growth and pressures in the east of England to ensure that the region gets a fair share of funding overall for its demography and that the most deprived areas are recognised within that.

While home ownership in the east of England is the highest of any English region, at 67.4% in 2021, those homes are less affordable than in the rest of the UK. In 42 out of 48 areas in the region, average house prices are more than eight times the median wage. The bottom rungs of the housing ladder have, in effect, been sawn off. In my own constituency casework, the No. 1 issue is the challenges faced by many people seeking a comfortable, warm and dry place to live that they can truly call home. To meet that challenge, we need to build more houses, with the necessary supporting infrastructure, across all tenures, including social housing. We need to meet the needs of all people, whether those setting up home for the first time, those starting families or those looking to downsize or rightsize as their children leave home.

Moreover, the Government need to follow up on their recently announced and welcome ambition to reduce energy demand by driving forward a national retrofit programme. We have successful individual schemes, such as the energy company obligation, but we are yet to embark on the journey to upgrade the bulk of the UK’s existing building stock. Policies should be set in Whitehall—hopefully, the Chancellor will have more to say on that next month—and then delivered locally, carried out by local craftsmen who are trained in local colleges and overseen by local councils.

In conclusion, I will make three observations about levelling up in the east of England. First, those living in the east of England will clearly benefit if we achieve the 2030 targets for the 12 missions, but so will the rest of the UK. For example, as I mentioned, improved connectivity and transport links across the region will lead to benefits flowing to all corners of Great Britain.

Secondly, there is the opportunity not just to level up but to create global exemplars in sectors such as low-carbon energy, life sciences and agritech. Low-carbon energy is particularly important in my constituency on the East Anglian coast—the all-energy coast. Nowhere else in the UK, quite likely nowhere else in Europe and possibly nowhere else in the world, do we find offshore wind, nuclear, carbon capture and hydrogen clustered so closely together. We must realise the full potential of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is an open goal staring us in the face, and it is vital that we do not kick the ball over the bar.

Thirdly, in these uncertain times, we need to have in mind our national security, which the east of England played a crucial role in providing during world war two, when the RAF and the US air force flew from our network of airfields across the region. I hope that security in that form will not be necessary again, but in a geopolitical context, we are in worrying and uncertain times. As the breadbasket of Britain, and as the aforementioned all-energy coast, we have a vital role to play in providing food and energy security.

Delivering on the levelling-up missions, not just in the east of England but across the country, requires collaboration. There is a need for Departments to be properly co-ordinated—I am conscious that I have commented on many issues that do not fall within the Minister’s remit, and I apologise for that. There is also a need for collaboration between national Government and local government, and with the region’s businesses. We need a delivery vehicle to achieve that. I look forward to the Minister’s summing up, and I hope she can pledge that the Government will commit to this important partnership approach.


Winding up at the end of the debate

Peter Aldous 

We have had a very full debate. I will go through the contributions made by hon. Members and hon. Friends, and I will try to pull one or two things together out of those.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) highlighted the importance of investment in health infrastructure and services. He is right to do so, because it is something that particularly concerns a great many of our constituents, and we must get that right. We have had a lot of discussion about the importance of rail, which I will come to in a minute. Being at the west of the region, he has highlighted the importance of East West Rail and, generally, in the east of England that can be a challenge.

We look so much north-south and at the roads to London; in fact, very often our road network is focused on the roads down to London. The A12 used to be a toll road from Yarmouth, and it was the main road serving that part of the area, and there was also the A10. Actually, those cross-country routes—whether they are the railways or the roads—are so important. In Suffolk or Norfolk, there is the A143, which links to Lowestoft but actually runs from Yarmouth right down on the county border through to Bury St Edmunds and down to Haverhill. That is a tortuous way to go down, so those cross-country routes are absolutely vital.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) emphasised the challenges faced by Jaywick and also highlighted the railways. Like me, his constituency is served by two railway lines, and he highlighted the slow, tortuous journey to Liverpool Street. From my perspective, on the East Suffolk line from Lowestoft to Ipswich the journey time has not improved since 1859. That is another particular challenge that we need to address.

A lot of our strategic investment in the coming years will be in the railways, but the road network is there and we must not forget it. There are pinch points and particular challenges. The A12 through Essex is heavily overused. Quite frankly, its activity justifies M status, but I do not think that will ever come, and we have to address that. Because of a lack of maintenance, a lot of our main roads are turning into little more than country tracks in some respects, which reminds me that there were most regrettable accidents on the B1062, which links Beccles to Bungay, over the new year period. I talked that through with the local community and the county council. The county council engineer is doing great work. He said, “We have analysed what happened and think there is a need for improvement, and you are now in the top 20% of our priority schemes.” I thought, “Great.” I said to him, “How many priority schemes do you have?” And he said, “Oh, 10,000”. That illustrates that investment in the existing network—

Geraint Davies (in the Chair)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that this should be a short winding-up rather than a full second speech.

Peter Aldous 

I take that on board, Mr Davies. I thought I had a bit more time.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair)

Just a few minutes.

Peter Aldous 

That is fine. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) gave an impassioned speech, which emphasised the railways. She raised reform of the apprenticeship levy, which is vital, and investment in skills.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) raised digital connectivity, which, although a medium risk in the report, is a challenge in the east of England because of our dispersed population, which covers a relatively large geographical area. I also have an interest in the A47, which runs from the A1 and, one might say, begins or finishes in my constituency—in Lowestoft. It is good that work has been done on that. He is an impassioned campaigner for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The James Paget University Hospital, which serves my constituency, is going to be rebuilt. Investment in NHS buildings is important, as is addressing demand and the workforce.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), speaking for the Opposition, raised some interesting points, including the common challenges across the country and how the approach that we have adopted might be an exemplar elsewhere. He also highlighted the particular challenges of coastal communities.

I thought the Minister gave a tremendous speech. It is unfortunate that, as I understand it, we will be losing her. She gets it; there was no camouflaging, and she came straight to the point, for which I thank her.

To sum up—my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham got this right—we have to break out of departmental silos. Levelling up is not just for my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department but for all Departments. There were so many issues that were not necessarily for her to address in her remit; they cover the whole of Government. It is about thinking in a joined-up way down here in Whitehall and Westminster, and devolution to local authorities, which will be very important. My right hon. Friend also raised the fact that we have to bring business with us. I think the LEPs have been a success, because they have put business at the forefront. I am not sure about the future of LEPs, but whatever happens, business has to be there, working in partnership and in collaboration with local and national Government. [Interruption.] I see that you are getting impatient, Mr Davies, so on that point I will sum up. I thank all colleagues for their contributions to the debate and thank you for chairing it.