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Regional Development (North-East)

Volume 525: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011

At the risk of making this Adjournment debate appear like the alternative Budget for the north-east—or of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland—I warn the Minister that the breadth of coverage of this speech will be large. However, I am sure, as I know my hon. Friends are, that such a diverse speech can only partially cover the wide sectoral diversity that has been achieved in 13 years of patient investment in the region by the previous Labour Government.

Let me give the Minister a brief overview of some of the issues of concern that face my region. I hope I speak for all parliamentary representatives of the north-east region when I say that a north-south divide still exists in England; it is deep, long term, continuing and persistently separates a nation on the basis of where an individual is born and raised, without due regard to the exceptional talent at hand within the boundaries of the Tees and the Tweed. Indeed, the current economic gap—which is perpetuated by the current economic climate—between the north-east and the rest of England is likely to widen, with the serious economic and social consequences that that entails.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ analysis of the comprehensive spending review indicates that the north-east will be disproportionately hit by spending cuts and job losses. Unfortunately, the coalition Government’s hope that private sector growth alone will fully compensate for such consequences ignores broad economics and, therefore, looks highly unlikely. Indeed, with the Government doing less—or rather, intervening less—in the north-east in particular, the economic position of the region will be made far worse, not better. The coalition Government are not supporting with adequate institutional arrangements or money their declared aim of rebalancing. Rebalancing without the support of adequate resources is a recipe for failure.

Ministers have consistently disputed the need for proactive regional policy or strong Government intervention. That stands in stark contrast to what happened this time last year, when the parties in the current coalition, unaware of the then Labour Government’s actions behind closed doors, called for direct state intervention in Teesside Cast Products. They disingenuously confuse and coalesce the logic of the “crowded-out private sector” with a laissez-faire, sideline observing position, away from the crucial brokering of integral business deals necessary for a burgeoning and diverse manufacturing sector.

For my sub-region within the north-east, “primers”, or large industrial foreign and domestic investments, still dictate the pace of a regional economy outside a city. They historically work in our region, and our region, more than most in England, wants them. The new orthodoxy, rooted to agglomeration, relies on the purely local—almost parochial—delivery of economic planning. I do not decry that in its entirety, but for local partnerships with very limited resources, manpower, expertise, clout, cash and perspective, to deliver will be difficult and will only get more difficult.

Localism and equity are not the same thing. If the objective is to ensure that northern authorities have the resources both to support their local economies and to provide local public services, the greater the extent to which the business rate is devolved, the more extensive the equalisation scheme that would be needed. Such a policy approach remains spatially blind, with absolute priority given to the destruction of existing regional economic structural drivers, such as the regional development agencies, which is simultaneously delivered cap-in-hand with grossly exaggerated local government budgetary cutbacks in the north-east. It is evident that, for this Government, deficit reduction takes primacy over economic rebalancing and any notion of localism.

RDAs were emasculated before any local enterprise partnership was fully set up, allowed to root itself or to be fully financed in and around the expectations of the present Government. That is not the fault of the LEPs—in my case the Tees Valley LEP—because the structures, finance and guidance were delivered to them by the Government. A plan to allow LEPs organically to transform themselves and direct themselves—or perhaps that is the lack of a plan—has been the Government’s prevailing philosophical hobby, rather than occupation. However, that is a smokescreen. It only proves again that deficit reduction takes primacy over any economic rebalancing, and trumps any new trumpeted localism for this Government.

If we are to make LEPs work, they must be properly funded and have access to funds. They should not have to bid with raffle tickets for funds from a regional growth fund—such a fund is less than the total budget for a still non-defined mutualisation model for post offices—that is suffering under the gross weight of demands. LEPs need a proper funding apparatus, whether localised or national in source.

The rush to condemn the RDA within the crucible of the coalition’s gaze has been pursued with a vigour that borders on an almost McCarthyite zealotry. On 12 October 2010, the Minister said:

“The economic divide between the Greater South East and the rest of England is as wide today as when the RDAs began their work. That by any measure is a failed policy.”

The case against One NorthEast totally and utterly reduced it to a list of failings, without due or proportionate regard to its obvious successes, which, unfortunately, did not come to light until after it had effectively been dismantled. Many of the coalition’s policies, including the new homes bonus and impending reforms to the business rate, are likely to favour the south over the north, and the north-east in particular. Recent spending decisions in key areas such as science and technology largely favour a strong southern bias.

The bias in research and development towards the south is cumulatively increased when areas that produce traditional industrial products, such as Teesside, require further state investment, such as grants for business investment schemes, job creation programmes, and public sector relocation. If that investment is not forthcoming, the north-east will remain behind the curve in comparison with its sister regions in England.

The hon. Gentleman speaks very passionately on the subject; none the less, I find it hard to agree with some of his comments. He says that the north-east is falling behind, but since mid-August there have been announced almost 26,000 new private sector jobs, investment worth some £9 billion and private sector contracts worth £1.5 billion. The north-east economy is booming in some areas, and that should be welcomed. Far from falling behind the rest of the country, we are showing all the signs of powering ahead, rebalancing our regional economy and getting the private sector up and running again.

The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for Stockton South and a worthy adversary indeed. He is right: Teesside has a fantastic industrial economy and many new projects have opened up across the region, in his own patch as well as my own. However, those jobs will be created over a certain time period. Many of those were to have been announced before the general election, but for a number of reasons the announcement was halted until after the election was called. It would be false to say that One NorthEast did not have a prime role in bringing those businesses to our region. As a former union official in the steel industry, I know how much One NorthEast has worked with both Governments in trying to get Sahaviriya Steel Industries into the region. What I am trying to say is that a list of failings was produced but there was never an equitable list of positives and negatives when we were assessing RDAs.

We strongly require support for the emergence of a range of different financial sources for infrastructure development, including the green bank, and a greater localised and decentralised source of capital explicitly held for manufacturing entrepreneurship. That will allow risk-takers to take those industrial strides around the existing capital and skills inherent in the cultural demographics of our region. I hope that, unlike the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the Minister will consider a manufacturing green bank that works with the agencies to deliver the technology and product design that will give us green technologies—working and operating out of Edinburgh, the Secretary of State’s preferred location—rather than holding debates on “green” ISAs or other financial products that simply have the term “green” before them. That green finance must be aimed at manufacturing and not solely at financial high-street products if the Government’s own agglomeration policy is to be pursued for manufacturing.

However, I understand where the Government are coming from on industry. Agglomeration is fine, but industrialised clustering works even better, as we have seen in Germany and the Netherlands, when industry has its own access to funding to implement its own decisions, or when financiers are educated in industry and are located nearby, as documented in yesterday’s Financial Times. However, that connection between finance and industry is still vague and I very much doubt that Ministers at DECC and the Treasury are concerned about it at present, as both Departments appear to have a more obvious preoccupation with carbon floor pricing than with industrial finance. Carbon floor pricing, which I will discuss later, is perhaps the most important issue for Teesside.

I also challenge the Government’s huge assumptions about another topic that I will discuss later: export-led growth. It is obvious to any man and woman in the street that all Governments at any point in time want export-led growth. A healthy balance of trade is integral to a modern industrialised economy. However, we have to be vigilant about the economic mood music emanating from Asia at present.

Enterprise zones—an issue particular to my area—are the Thatcherite reprise of this Government. The enterprise zones policy is not wholly bad, but previous examples have shown that they are best used in certain sectors such as retail and finance. Our financial capitals are established overwhelmingly in London, although Leeds has developed in that regard in recent years. A previous example of enterprise zone growth in the north-east is evident at Gateshead’s Metro centre. However, what we do best on Teesside is not best suited to enterprise zones, and they ignore the broader view of industrialists in the port and chemical sectors.

I also want to look at particular areas in my constituency, such as our local high streets in Middlesbrough, Guisborough and East Cleveland.

I promise not to intervene often, as many Members are here for this debate. My hon. Friend mentioned my home town of Gateshead, and the Metro centre, which was viewed as a tremendous success in the 1980s, when it was initiated. However, did not the Metro centre have a profoundly negative effect on Gateshead town centre? That is the real danger that exists with any introduction of enterprise zones. They might assist a very small geographical area, but they might also create what is almost a wasteland outside their boundaries.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I have to agree with him. Obviously, there are benefits from enterprise zones. They bring a certain percentage of business in, but they also displace existing business. I will go into that issue in more detail later.

What can we do for small and medium-sized businesses and the self-employed? I have already talked to the Minister about that, and I believe my comments were received very positively. Ultimately, however, the direction of the north-east must be viewed from the perspective of the north-east. Until our region has more command of its economic destiny, it will continually have to bid against other English regions and Scotland and Wales for attention and investment.

Economic development in the north-east is a subject of deep concern to my constituents and the people of the wider region. Indeed, it should also be of concern to all the people of the UK, because without shared growth our country can never travel the road to prosperity. In the coalition agreement last year, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“We both want to build a new economy from the rubble of the old. We will support sustainable growth and enterprise, balanced across all regions and all industries”.

That was and is an admirable pursuit, but my constituents are not seeing words being translated into action. In contrast, despite the north-east having the highest proportion of workers in the public sector of any English region, the Conservative-led Government have vague plans for growth in the north-east’s private sector, while simultaneously attacking its public sector base and the businesses—small and medium-sized, as well as self-employed—that thrive as a result of that public spending. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister may have likened the economy under the last Government to “rubble”, but the last Government understood the regions and gave real teeth to regional development.

For example, the north-east regional development agency—One NorthEast—was one of those rarest of things: a public body with almost unanimous support that attracted praise from public and private sectors alike. However, a subtle criticism I have of the agency is that the region should have capitalised on the opportunity that it provided to take strides on its own. With a regional assembly that is democratically legitimate, our region would certainly be in a stronger position to attract business as well as to retain it, rather than witnessing what we are seeing in some areas: a partial and gradual leakage of industry from our region.

Praise for One NorthEast is well deserved. An independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that regional development agencies return £4.50 to regional gross value added for every £1 spent, if allowance is made for the expected persistence of economic benefits. Furthermore, the National Audit Office’s independent performance assessment concluded that One NorthEast was performing strongly. So why has it been abolished, especially after the Business Secretary said that the regions could decide what best suits their area? The only answer can be that the Conservative-led Government’s business policy is dictated from an informed position, but one that looks from London. It is a policy that will work, but not for all, and is ultimately submerged in an ideological fervour. It is formed not by regional or local opinion but Whitehall dogma. However, I reiterate that I do not believe that Ministers are stupid or ignorant of economics; they are simply applying a view that does not have a kernel within my region, and which does not redistribute wealth.

One NorthEast is the body that helped to set up and support the North East of England Process Industry Cluster, which made £1 billion gross value added in six years with just £3 million of public support. However, in addition to the scrapping of One NorthEast, we have now seen the abrupt end to the emergency package devised for Teesside in the wake of steel job losses. That fund targeted jobs growth in the chemicals sector, particularly in the growth area of agri-chemicals, as an alternative to lost steel jobs. Obviously, we have had the excellent news of the investment by SSI at Teesside Cast Products. However, that emergency jobs scheme has been axed, even though it is still allocating work and has £18 million in uncommitted funds that could have been used to support and enhance the objectives of NEPIC members’ companies.

Now we hear that a long-standing and successful job creation fund, which in the past decade has helped to create many hundreds of thousands of jobs in areas such as the north-east, is to be axed by stealth. That fund—the grants for business investment scheme, under the name regional selective assistance—has been responsible in the north-east for pumping £112 million into poorer parts of the region, helping to create 25,000 jobs. In various forms and under successive Governments, the scheme has been in place since the late 1960s. It survived the Heath years, the 1970s Labour Governments and even the Thatcher and Major years, as well as the following Blair and Brown Governments. Despite differences of economic policy, all those Administrations recognised the value of regional selective assistance. Throughout that whole post-second world war period, that element of consensual “Butskellism” remained and only now has it been totally dismantled.

The Chancellor has announced the creation of at least 10 enterprise zones across Britain, in a scaled-down revival of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship urban renewal programme of the 1980s. The Chancellor hopes that those zones, which will offer simpler planning rules and corporate tax breaks, will accelerate development in areas that already have high growth potential. They will not simply be created in areas of physical decline. However, sceptics believe that they could be ineffective and that the appeal of the tax breaks will be limited by the fact that only £100 million of Government subsidy will be available, spread over four years.

The Chancellor’s announcement is part of a wave of initiatives to be unveiled by Ministers before the Budget tomorrow, all of which are intended to prove that the Government have a coherent strategy for growth. He will announce at least 10 zones, which are expected to be chosen by Ministers on the basis of submissions by councils and business leaders. To address fears that this is a top-down initiative that might sideline town halls and local enterprise partnerships, the Chancellor will say that local authorities will be able to keep all of the business rates that they raise in the new zones.

However, retention of the business rates will almost certainly benefit a number of London and south-east areas. In fact, the special interest group of municipal authorities, or SIGOMA, analysis of 2009-10 settlement-based grants showed that the top 10 councils to benefit are Westminster, City of London, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Hillingdon, Hampshire, Camden, West Sussex, Kent and Essex. The London boroughs of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and the City of London will gain £1.6 billion in total in local spending, whereas the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire will lose out by £760 million in total.

The Chancellor insists that the coalition’s initiative will shift growth from London and the south-east to other regions, and he says that it contrasts with what he claims was Labour’s attempt to micro-manage the economy. He told his party’s spring conference in Cardiff:

“Our approach is different: tax breaks and less bureaucracy, not quangos and more regulation.”

As I sense that the hon. Gentleman might be moving on in his speech, it is important to put very clearly on the record that, although he and I disagree about enterprise zones, there is a great deal of support right across Teesside for the campaign to get an enterprise zone in our local area. That support comes from not only me and the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) as local MPs but Ray Mallon, the mayor of Middlesbrough, and business people such as Steve Gibson, who is the chairman of Middlesbrough football club, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Moreover, the local enterprise partnership is extremely keen to secure an enterprise zone. It is important that the Minister hears those comments, which should be on the record. We really want an economic zone, although I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman, who represents a neighbouring constituency, has a different view of the success of such zones from me.

Yes, I know Steve Gibson—I am a season ticket holder at Middlesbrough FC. I partially agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. Local authorities, business leaders and LEPs have to work within the frameworks and structures that they are given, and they have to make those frameworks and structures work. However, this is a broad debate about the policy, and if I did not talk about the economic implications of the policy, I would not be doing a proper service to my constituents.

Reviving enterprise zones will prove ineffective, even if that aim is achieved at less cost than that of the 1980s model and the zones are redesigned for today’s circumstances. The Work Foundation and the Centre for Cities think-tanks argue in recently published reports that zones created under the now Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major created too few jobs and were too expensive. The Work Foundation has said that such zones typically created only a three-year boost before areas lapsed into depression, and that up to four fifths of jobs were simply displaced from other areas, often within the same town.

London’s Isle of Dogs—now Canary Wharf—was among the most successful of 38 enterprise zones created between 1981 and 1996, but others in places such as Middlesbrough, Speke, Hartlepool and Swansea left a less impressive legacy. The EEF manufacturing association has said that the policy sounds like a return to the past. The rhetoric deployed by the Government indeed sounds attractive, but I signal real caution and suggest to them and to supporters of enterprise zones that they reacquaint themselves with Teesside’s history in the 1980s. Enterprise zones offer potential relief on local business rates, reductions in corporation tax or national insurance contributions, tax credits or capital gains allowances on investment in premises, and the relaxation or fast-tracking of planning processes and capital expenditure subsidies. Did that work in the ’80s throughout the north-east, and throughout all sectors and, more importantly, will it work now in 2011? I had a look at my old economics notes from Teesside university, and all the evidence from the past suggests that enterprise zones did not work, and possibly will not again.

Locally, Middlesbrough’s Riverside Park, which has since been very successful, was designated as an enterprise zone, but all that happened was a rush to get speculative office development off the ground with no tenants and no businesses to fill the new buildings. That, of course, did not worry the developers, who simply benefited from the tax perks from building in an enterprise zone and allowed the empty buildings to be used to make artificial losses, which reduced the total taxation on their developments elsewhere. Such experiences, bar perhaps the Metro centre and Black and Decker in Durham and the London Docklands, were admitted as a failure at the time by the Thatcher Government. In their official evaluation, the Government admitted that between 1981 and 1986 they poured £300 million into the scheme but created only 13,000 new jobs nationally, which equates to £45,000 of public cash per job at the mid-1980s value of sterling. The same study also stated that enterprise zones mainly encouraged job displacement rather than real new jobs, and it showed that 25% of new jobs in enterprise zones were displaced from within the same town.

Repeated today, that type of local displacement risks seriously destabilising our local economy, as it involves artificially enticing businesses into what could be seen as less competitive areas within the same town. On the face of it, it might seem obvious that lower taxes boost business, but that was not borne out by experience. It quickly became clear for the majority of small businesses that their biggest concern was about making a profit in the first place, and about the risks associated with achieving that, rather than about tax on revenue or profit. Questions of rent, skilled workers and access to markets were more significant than a temporary lifting of a tax burden in a specific area rather than across the board.

The only people who benefited in the 1980s were the developers, not wealth-creating manufacturing businesses. We should not dismiss out of hand any proposals to encourage job creation and, for the sake of my area, if the plan goes ahead I will wish it every success, but the evidence of actual gain is thin indeed. Some already established businesses and their owners might see it as a helpful tax avoidance scheme, but that only benefits the already rich by possibly multiplying their wealth and does not create any added value.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, because it is a very helpful process. I have listened for 23 minutes now, and there is a great deal of criticism of what is being tried by the Government but no alternative being put forward. I look forward with great interest to hearing what the alternative will be—

The hon. Gentleman says that, but someone has to pay back the £120 million-a-day debt. Speaking as the son of manufacturers who have been in the industry for many years, what the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) describes is not necessarily how my family have found it.

I will come on to discuss the alternatives. We have seen borrowing increase by £2 billion, and certain policies, which I will come on to later, have economic effects on the national economy, and more profoundly on that of the north-east. Those effects will be part and parcel of the package due to inflation, and the retail prices index is currently running at a 20-year high. Such national policies are being put in place to deal with the deficit, but they seem to do only that, rather than presenting a progressive or prospective economic plan.

Turning to industry, chemical firms with major operations on Teesside, as well as our local steel producers Tata, have grave and well-founded concerns about industrial growth policy. I am, of course, talking about carbon floor prices. A consortium of firms, including SABIC, Lucite International and GrowHow, has recently criticised the Government’s energy strategy, justly claiming that it hinders the competitiveness of UK manufacturers more than any employment regulation or tribunal. The implementation of a minimum price for carbon will add a minimum of 20% to energy-intensive users’ energy bills. If the policy is implemented, our nearby EU competitors will no doubt exploit the situation, as will competition further afield. The policy will hinder further inward investment, and might lead to the departure from our region of good companies that provide long-term, well-paid, skilled work. EU competitors have attempted and then pulled away from equivalent policies. Changes to the carbon reduction commitment scheme, which amount to a £1 billion tax, will also delay green investment and hurt small downstream industry that aids steel production in the UK. Ultimately, potential and existing investors will move abroad to less efficient and less green arrangements, which will not benefit our economy either nationally or regionally.

Yesterday evening, some other MPs and I met some of the major companies in the energy-intensive industries, many of which are in our constituencies in the north-east. The Government plan to have carbon capture programmes, but none of them takes into account the specific needs of those industries. Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government should think again, and instead of just concentrating on energy plans concentrate on the needs of industries as well?

My hon. Friend hits the nail right on the head. Whatever policy we have—an agglomeration policy, or a slightly different industrial policy—the energy factor, which I will go into in more detail later, will have a more and more profound impact on industry’s ability to retain and maintain its current position as well as to invest. Teesside is potentially one of the key areas in the country, never mind the region, for that investment, particularly in the chemical and steel sectors. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

Of anything that I say today, I beg the Minister to take that message about carbon floor pricing back to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to block any moves that will hurt our north-east in general, and Teesside’s industrial core in particular. The announcement of a supposed regional growth strategy for the north-east as part of the comprehensive spending review is at best misleading and at worst a smokescreen to hide the deep cuts that will stunt economic growth in our region. The regional growth fund will also have to finance bids for housing and transport plans, so it is obvious that even a successful LEP bid to the fund will mean only a small slice of a very small cake. The fund was designed to redress the regional imbalance in the economy, so surely providing funds to companies in the affluent south-east will undermine its objectives.

I am also extremely concerned that the Government may well be turning away millions of pounds of EC funding for new economic initiatives and infrastructure projects, because their blunders over the winding-up of the regional development agencies means that they do not have the match funding for those job-creating schemes. On Teesside that is made worse, as the back-up service for a Tees valley LEP will rely on the existing Tees Valley Unlimited agency and its staff. However, that too has had £7 million of its £9 million budget slashed. There will also be a real terms cut of 9% to the science budget, which threatens to leave the UK behind international competitors such as the US and Germany, which are still increasing their science spending despite the economic climate. Even the Minister for Universities and Science said recently that scientific research contributes to long-term growth. If the Chancellor agrees with that, why are we not increasing the science budget like other countries?

The Government announced in the CSR that £1 billion would be provided to fund carbon capture and storage. According to Jeff Chapman, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, that will fund one project,

“but it’s not enough for four”.

I argue that the Wilton site, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), is ideal for the project in many respects.

We must be able to capitalise on foreign export opportunities, yet we must not rely wholly on them. As I have said, this Government have given absolute economic primacy to deficit reduction. That has massive implications for a sector-led agglomeration anywhere in England, but it will particularly affect how potential foreign export purchasers view England, especially the north-east.

Chemicals are a major player nationally as well as locally on Teesside, and they make up more than 30% of UK economic exports. Teesside has massive potential, with projects such as Chain Reaction by PD Ports at Teesport and Hartlepool, agrichemicals as a new growth sector, petrochemical developments, SSI and Tata at Teesside Cast Products and many more.

US ambassador Louis Susman has questioned the wisdom of the Chancellor’s massive spending cuts, warning that they risk plunging Britain into a double-dip recession. His remarks echo those of leading economists at the International Monetary Fund, who said last week that the US and EU economies remain too fragile to absorb major deficit cuts, concluding that additional spending and tax breaks would be a much more sensible strategy. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Susman praised the Chancellor’s determination to eliminate the deficit within a single Parliament as “very admirable”, but warned:

“But the question is, is it too much, too fast? We worry about double-dip recession and the lack of growth.”

So do I.

China reported a trade deficit in February of £4.5 billion. Exports from China grew by 2.4%, which was less than expected, mainly due to the appreciation in value of China’s currency. However, growth in imports also decreased from an expected 30% to 19.4%. We must remember that under Labour, between January and August 2010, exports to China from the UK rose by 44%, which especially helped manufacturers. Between January and April 2010, manufacturers boosted UK exports by £21.3 billion. The demonstrable reduction in Chinese demand is having huge effects on other international economies that export or rely on exports.

The coalition Government must understand that an export-led growth strategy alone will not suffice. Besides the obvious structural unemployment issues—the skills of redundant public service workers in the north-east will not match the growing sectors, if any grow—manufacturing sector credit squeezes in China, the terrible floods in Australia that have limited coke exports, desperate earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and ongoing events in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the wider middle east and north Africa will affect an overly optimistic and wholly reliant British exports policy. Iron ore, steel, cotton and other commodities are peaking at extraordinarily high levels. More importantly, coal, gas and oil markets are peaking as Japan, China, and Germany re-evaluate their nuclear policies, which is already affecting our access to fossil fuels and their domestic and industrial usage and price. That will undoubtedly affect not just our north-eastern industry but our national export capability.

By betting the house solely on exports, we expose ourselves to a potential backfire. However, public sector investment and an export policy need not be mutually exclusive. Obviously, we can pursue an export policy while retaining our levels of public sector investment in the north-east. Again, however, an export policy with no real investment and no public sector expenditure belies the coalition’s policy of giving economic primacy to deficit reduction. We should not reduce the deficit at the price of our public sector and, in turn, of the small and medium-sized businesses in the north-east that rely on it.

The planned changes implemented so far include a rise in VAT to 20%, which will affect consumer spend. Businesses such as leisure, hotels, restaurants and retail will bear the brunt. Indeed, figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility stated today that the consumer prices index was at 4.4%, double the Tory-led Government’s estimates. I am a traditionalist, and as a former union officer I never dealt in CPI, but always in RPI. The OBR says that the retail prices index has risen from 5.1% to 5.5%, the highest in 20 years. Funnily enough, that was the last time there was a Tory Government. We have had the wrong kind of snow from this Chancellor, and now he claims, as he did on the front page of the Financial Times, that we have the wrong kind of inflation, causing him to have to borrow £11.8 billion, up from £9.5 billion last year. I thought that we were making cuts in order to reduce loans.

The effects of the Government’s policies resonate hugely, and nowhere more than in the north-east. R3, the association of business recovery professionals, regularly contacts me regarding time-to-pay arrangements for small and medium-sized businesses, especially given the impact of oncoming public sector cuts. Time to pay is crucial in the north-east to help the self-employed and small businesses currently in trouble to avoid insolvency and prevent the further private sector redundancies that will be inevitable after public sector cuts.

R3 surveyed 300 small businesses and found that one third relied wholly on public sector spending in one form or another. The survey was nationwide, and things will undoubtedly be more severe in the north-east. The situation will be more acute, of course, if interest rates increase on top of the inflationary figures estimated today by the OBR.

On behalf of small businesses, I welcome the Government’s potential simplification of tax, especially if national insurance and income tax are combined. However, the Government could go further for the north-east and its small businesses. High streets in ancient market towns such as Guisborough, Brotton, Loftus, Skelton, Saltburn and other East Cleveland villages need help. Some great small businesses are developing in my constituency. Coastal View, for example, is a new free monthly paper that advertises other local businesses. In south Middlesbrough, retail is also key at shopping areas such as the Parkway in Coulby Newham, Easterside, Marton, Marton Manor, Hemlington and Park End.

Self-employed women and men in my region need quick assistance. On behalf of small businesses, I ask the Minister this: rather than enterprise zones, could the north-east as a whole pilot a 5% VAT rate for construction? Evidence in France has shown it to have turnover benefits of 7%. The Government must act on VAT and fuel duty, and the consensus on that is cross-party, especially on fuel. The 5% VAT rate could be extended in turn to public houses, restaurants and food service in general, helping struggling small businesses while aiding our region’s burgeoning activity tourism economy. Similarly, VAT exemption rates could be lifted from £60,000 to £90,000 for small businesses and the self-employed, bringing in broadly the same revenues for the Treasury while giving small business a break. Again, that could be piloted in the north-east.

I give the Government credit for relaxing planning regulations to allow some commercial properties to be changed to housing accommodation. It might prove a more viable solution in rural areas of my constituency, particularly on certain high streets in East Cleveland. Even so, small businesses will become increasingly key in the fine economic blend of the north-east region.

I understand that I have raised many sectoral topics and a diverse array of issues, but I look forward to any response that the Minister can give.

It is a great pleasure to follow a fine, long and detailed speech that took us on a lovely journey through your constituency and touched on many local areas, but not on many others. I waited—I probably waited too long to intervene—for you to acknowledge that the £120 million-a-day debt with which the Chancellor must deal is something that you caused. It did not arise out of nowhere. I hope that it is accepted that whoever was in power—this applies just as much to your good selves as it does to us—would have had to deal with that debt. To ignore the huge debt that we must deal with when addressing the economics of the situation is unacceptable.

If I counted correctly, there were few things of which you were in favour: simplification of tax, a possible VAT cut to 5% and the relaxation of some planning regulations. In 35 minutes, almost no description of anything that we are doing did not chime with McCarthyite zealotry, which is the most eloquent and powerful description of what you were trying to do—

Order. Mr Opperman, you keep saying “you” and “your”. You are supposed to be addressing me, and you are ascribing to me views that perhaps I do not hold.

I apologise. That is entirely true, Mr Caton. I could not possibly comment on whether anybody had McCarthyite zealotry.

I have listened to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and hope that he will advance the issue. It is wrong, however, to describe enterprise zones as a bad thing and to say that policies should be implemented in a way that ignores tremendous benefits. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) would describe the great benefits of Corus, and we should not ignore the fact that the North East of England Process Industry Cluster has come forward. All of those are good things.

Frankly, it is important, at this moment in time, to deal with deficit reduction. If there is a manifest difference between the proposals of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and ours, it is about whether the deficit is the key or not. I suggest that, at a time in which we are in so much debt, the deficit is always the key, because if we do not address it, we will disappear into a situation akin to that of Greece or Portugal.

I do not deny that the Government’s plans are sensible, have a point and a logic, and that they might work. The point is about who they will benefit. Is this yet more trickle-down economics, or are we genuinely talking about redistributive economics? Redistributive economics favours the north-east, but I am afraid that trickle-down economics favours the south-east. The Chancellor’s plans may indeed work, but to whose benefit?

The dispute between us is fairly stark in terms of the extent to which we have the potential to repay. My view is that the Chancellor is trying—this is not something he wanted to inherit—to address the £120 million-a-day debt and to be in a position to do that. I believe that he will take the issue forward and that there are real opportunities in the way ahead. I speak as the representative of a fundamentally rural constituency, but jobs are up and the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) are fair. It will be difficult, but I am absolutely certain that the Chancellor has the right policy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this timely and important debate, and on his excellent overview of the north-east economy. Given the particular challenges faced in a region such as ours, and the already felt and anticipated impact of this Conservative-led Government’s policies, I could touch on so many issues in this debate. However, given that Newcastle airport is based in my constituency, I think it appropriate to address the important role played by aviation in the development of the north-east economy.

With about 3,000 people on site, the airport is the largest employer in Newcastle upon Tyne North. It contributes about £400 million to the north-east economy annually, and it handles more than 5 million passengers a year. The excellent service provided by Newcastle airport to domestic and international passengers has been nationally recognised by its peers, having been voted the best UK airport by the British Air Transport Association for two years running.

Indeed, the service provided by Newcastle airport has become increasingly important to the region’s economy over the years, with the growth of the tourism industry in the past decade or so being one of the real success stories for the north-east. Tourism is now worth nearly £4 billion to the region’s economy and employs more than 65,000 people, while the increase in visitor numbers to north-east England has been outstripped only by London in recent years. To give just one example of the airport’s impact on the north-east economy, the new Emirates route that launched in 2007 saw the region’s first ever scheduled long-haul route. It flies daily from Newcastle to Dubai, and it has opened up onward connections to more than 50 destinations around the world. It has also opened up a whole new tourism market for north-east England, leading to One NorthEast’s award-winning “Passionate People, Passionate Places” campaign heading as far afield as Australia and New Zealand to target those people who were then within easier reach of our region.

The Conservative-led Government’s cuts, however, and their decision to abolish our regional development agency, mean that north-east England no longer has the capacity to promote itself as a tourism destination either nationally or internationally. This situation and the abrupt end to the “Passionate People, Passionate Places” campaign have been rightly and roundly criticised in the region.

As the Minister should be aware, north-east England is also one of the few regions in the UK with a positive balance of payments—recently published figures indicate that the total value of north-east exports was £11.91 billion in 2010. At the same time, inward investment has played an increasingly important role in the north-east economy, creating or safeguarding more than 6,500 jobs in our region in 2009-10 alone, and levering in £720 million in capital. About 82% of the inward investment came as a direct result of One NorthEast. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that serious point.

Newcastle airport plays an important role in supporting the strength of the north-east export market and our foreign trading links, providing the region’s businesses with easy access to key international markets. Direct flights from Newcastle to Stavanger in Norway, for example, have proved crucial in supporting the development of the north-east’s offshore and subsea industries. Moreover, the Emirates link to Dubai, which I have mentioned, now provides easier access to commercial opportunities in China, the far east and India, as well as the middle east.

Another key area vital to the growth of the region’s economy is ensuring that we have the skilled work force of the future. I am a passionate supporter of vocational education and apprenticeships, which is why I tabled my Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill. Recently, it was a pleasure to go to the airport and meet one current and one former motor technician apprentice—one at the start of their career, the other at the end—who have both trained and worked at the airport. I also pay tribute to the £3.3million Newcastle Aviation Academy, which was officially launched in 2009 having received investment from Newcastle college, One NorthEast and the Learning and Skills Council. This top-of-the-range facility, based at Newcastle airport, provides a wide range of training in all aspects of the aviation industry, including aircraft engineering, aeronautical engineering, and airport and airline management. It is exactly the sort of thing that the previous Labour Government invested in to support young people, rather than write them off, which is what some of the Government’s policies are doing.

Newcastle airport has, therefore, played an integral part in the north-east’s economic past, and will continue to do so in the future. However, a key, ongoing issue for the airport and north-east businesses has been the impact of air passenger duty and the Government’s proposals to move to a per plane duty. Notwithstanding the importance of ensuring a greener, low-carbon economy and the important part that aviation must play in achieving that, this and any other taxation policy must concentrate not only on increasing revenue for the Treasury and greening our economy, but on rebalancing our economy in a way that will not impact disproportionately on our regions.

The Newcastle Journal’s long-standing campaign, “A Tax Too Far”, has called on Governments, past and present, to recognise the disproportionate impact of APD on regional airports. It urges that APD or PPD be restructured in line with the impact they have on regions, compared with London, and for consideration to be given to reduced rates of APD for new start-up routes in and out of the north-east. The Newcastle Journal’s campaign has clear support from the business community. In January, the Emirates vice president for the UK and Ireland, Laurie Berryman, made it clear that larger airlines would be forced to consider their position at UK regional airports if APD becomes too great and passenger numbers fall. Moreover, earlier this month, the North East chamber of commerce wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport to call for an overhaul of the APD system, stating that it has a disproportionate impact on our region’s businesses. The NECC is calling for differential rates for regional airports, to replace the current blanket duty, in order to ensure that the north-east economy does not suffer and that its export businesses can continue to grow. As the NECC chief executive, James Ramsbotham, has pointed out:

“North East businesses already face heavier costs than their counterparts in other regions in order to access common markets due to high fuel prices, so addressing the anomalies that APD gives rise to will ensure that our exporting businesses have a much better chance of realising their potential.”

Of course, if differential rates of APD or PPD were introduced for regional airports, it would also reduce pressure on Newcastle airport’s already overcrowded south-east counterparts. In the words of Graeme Mason, head of corporate affairs at Newcastle airport:

“By freezing or reducing the rate of APD out of regional airports, the Government could, at a stroke, rebalance the economy, reduce the North-South divide, and take the pressure off the South East.”

An announcement on the issue is expected in the Chancellor’s Budget tomorrow. Will he recognise the regional impact of tax and provide a real stimulus for regional economies like ours in the north-east in his so-called “Budget for growth”? Like Newcastle airport, the North East chamber of commerce and many other north-east businesses, I—and I am sure my colleagues—await the Chancellor’s announcement tomorrow with great anticipation.

I congratulate my hon. neighbour—as I suppose I should call him—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate and on his powerful and very well-researched speech. He has done excellent work.

As we know, the north-east economy is largely founded on the historic industries of coal mining, ship building and steel manufacture. For decades, we have had issues with both the run-down of those industries and the run-down of employment in those industries, even those that continue. Although the news of the revival of the steel industry is very welcome in my constituency, I do not think it will employ 10,000-plus people again, which it did not so long ago. There has been a long history of assistance being given to the north-east in relation to various coal and steel closure areas and regional development grants. In the 1980s, I remember filling in the forms for regional development grants in a former life. There has been a long history of needing to do something about the north-east, and various Governments have continued that.

I accept the points made about the RDA. RDAs around the country have had patchy success. However, I think that even the other RDAs would recognise that One NorthEast was probably the best and most successful. I pay tribute to the former Minister for the North East, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), for his passion and advocacy both of RDAs and the region. Something we should all recognise in this place is that what divides us politically is far less than what joins us when it comes to regional issues.

The RDA did good work but, as I said in the recent debate in the House led by the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, we need to consider the study done last year by Experian and the BBC. They looked at 324 areas in the country in terms of economic strength and rated Hartlepool as 314th, Redcar and Cleveland as 319th and Middlesbrough last at 324th. Whatever else has happened, we have not driven the Teesside area up the economic league. The only time we had any significant urban renewal in Teesside was from 1987 to 1998, when we had Hartlepool marina, Stockton riverside and university campus, Teesside barrage and waterpark, Teesside retail and leisure park, and Middlesbrough riverside. That was the period of the flawed but, nevertheless, energetic and focused Teesside development corporation, which was scrapped by the Labour Government when they came to power. Much less has happened since in that regard.

I shall turn to transport. The Tees valley is the birth place of passenger railways. If someone were to ask in a pub quiz where the first passenger railway was, most people would say that it was Stockton to Darlington, which runs along the Tees valley. So where are we today with our railways? We still have a railway that runs from Darlington, almost touches Stockton and goes all the way through to Saltburn. It passes very close to the Riverside stadium, but does not stop there; it passes very close to Teesside retail and leisure park, but does not stop there; and it passes within half a mile of Teesside airport, but does not stop there. Is there another airport in the country that has virtually no public transport? The failure to even allow a railway that already exists close to Teesside airport to be part of the transport structure in the area shows that there is an awful lot to do. Middlesbrough is the largest town in the country without a direct link to London, which is another example of what is left to do. We have some real issues to deal with and real work left to do.

In business, I always used to say that one could tell whether a committee was any use, first, by how it was formed—did it form itself?—and, secondly, whether people attended it. Teesside Valley Unlimited formed itself as a private-sector led, private-public partnership about five years ago, because of the perceived needs of the Tees valley and the difficulties there. It is no surprise that that organisation was very quick out of the traps when it saw the opportunity to have a local enterprise partnership for the area. I know that that enraged some people further north and that it was felt to be a fragmentation of effort that may lead to outcomes that are not as good.

I have always been a one region person. Although I congratulate the people of Tees valley on putting together the first LEP in the region, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is important that the north-east—the smallest region in the country—works closely together and has a tremendous partnership with our local authorities and other organisations in order to drive the region forward? We should not simply try to plough our own furrow, as some people would have us do.

I was about to come on to that matter. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Absolutely, we need one regional voice on a number of issues. This Government perhaps differ from the previous Government in that we do not see the need for such an approach to be prescribed in detail for every region. I hope that the existing structures can make decisions, create what they think they need and make it work. If there are two LEPs in an area, the Government are not prescribing that they cannot talk to each other and say, “Okay, let’s jointly work on this.” A good example is European funding. The Government have already decided to retain a regional focus for European funding, because that is what is necessary.

The hon. Gentleman is an excellent advocate for the region, and it has been a pleasure working with him on getting steel back to Teesside. However, there are some fundamental problems with the LEP structure. Let us consider, for example, Hitachi. As he has rightly mentioned, that is a great success story for the region. How will small and medium-sized enterprises in the Tees Valley LEP that want to grow around Hitachi, which is not in the Tees Valley LEP, interact with the new LEP, the North East Economic Partnership and the other structures?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. Not everything happens through Government agencies. Business is business. If I were running a business, or if I wanted to run a business in the Tees valley, and I knew that a train manufacturing facility was being set up 10 miles away, I would not need a Government agency to lead me to talk to people and make things happen. We have suffered from the idea that people wait to be told what to do, and that is a good example.

That still does not answer my point. If an SME wants to get regional growth fund funding, which LEPs does it talk to? Does it talk to both? Does it also talk to the NEEP, or does it talk to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury directly? It seems that the need for further meetings will increase, rather than decrease.

Okay. I will be more specific for the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, if a business wants to base itself in the Tees valley and has customers—wherever they are—it should talk to the Tees Valley LEP. If those customers happen to be in the region, that is fine. I do not see a problem with that. As I have said, there is no law that states people cannot talk to each other.

An almost religious adherence to the regions has had some benefits, but it has also created some problems. In 2004, the people of the north-east firmly rejected the idea of regional government. Some of us regretted that more than others, but the decision was absolutely overwhelming—not just from the fringes of the north-east but from the heartlands of Tyneside and Wearside.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I think that he accepts that if he wanted to put together a worse set of circumstances to get a yes vote, it probably could not be done. Does he agree with that?

Absolutely. One issue was whether central Government were prepared to release enough powers. I remember reading the document and being unimpressed by such statements as the “power to advise Ministers”, which did not strike me as a particularly powerful power, so I agree with that. Regionalisation, however, has had some impacts—I will come on to wider issues in a moment—on the Tees valley. For example, our area, which contains 750,000 people, has been deemed unable to run our own ambulance service, which has been moved out of the area. The fire service was about to be moved, and an attempt was made to try to get the police to merge with another organisation. We need to stand up strongly for what is a very natural, large area of population, and, sadly, regionalisation has not always helped.

[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I am not a “little Teessider”—my wife comes from Stanley, which is quite a bit further north. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) would not let me get through this debate without mentioning the dualling of the A1. Just in case hon. Members did not think that was going to happen, it has happened. [Interruption.] Sorry, the dualling has not happened. I have mentioned it on behalf of my right hon. Friend. It would be great if that dualling were to happen. I recognise that the north-east has a lot of coherence, though it seems a long way from the end of my constituency to the north of my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

The north-east has a lot of strengths. In many cases, we can work together. In other cases, it is not appropriate to work together. There are enormous strengths in terms of industrial background and the conversion of people and industries in those historic sectors to doing new things. We have people who are highly skilled, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) has said. We already show, particularly through process industries and other manufacturing, that we can make and export things, and I know that the Government are very keen to see that happen.

On rebalancing the economy—yes, the process is redistributive, but as the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has said, what is it redistributing?—we know that the country has a huge economic problem at the moment. I welcome mechanisms such as the regional growth fund, but we have a massive issue in terms of small and medium-sized enterprises. I hope that the Minister will respond specifically to this point: 97% of the grants given out by One NorthEast were less than £1 million. That £1 million threshold has to be very short-term. If the board of the regional growth fund cannot consider hundreds and hundreds of projects, then we need a programme mechanism beneath that board.

It has been estimated in some quarters that the potential growth in supply chain jobs from the Hitachi development is as much as 7,000 jobs. There is very little chance, however, of 7,000 supply chain jobs in the north-east of England coming from the SME sector, if there is not much more flexibility in the distribution of the regional growth fund and in grants that are fit for the SME sector. At the moment, such grants are out of reach for many businesses.

I welcome that intervention, which powerfully supports the point that I was just making. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

I would just like to mention two other issues that the Minister could perhaps touch on. One issue relates to energy prices.

Order. I hope to start the winding-up speeches at 10 minutes past 12, and the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) wants to come in. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bring his remarks to a close.

I will do that, Mr Leigh.

Energy pricing has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. I also want to press the Government on the Infrastructure Planning Commission. We have a large project in my constituency at the moment that must divide itself, completely artificially, in two. Part of the project is supposedly covered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission and part of it will be approved by the local authority. It is costing the business a fortune to fight two planning processes.

I will draw my remarks to a close now. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. As I have said, there is a lot more that joins us on these issues than that separates us.

I will cut parts of my speech to make your deadline, Mr Leigh.

In the past 10 years or more, there has been a radical change in the mix of industry, business and public service in the north-east. Much of that was led by One NorthEast, the regional development agency, and by forward-looking local authorities of all political colours working in partnership. The result was that the north-east was slightly less vulnerable when the world economic crisis hit us, but we still need major change and investment to ensure that the region does not slip way back to where we were in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of unemployed claimants in my constituency of Stockton North in February 2011 was 3,812. That is 9.2% of the economically active population aged 16 to 64, which is a good reason why we need growth not only for my constituency, but for the whole north-east, where 10.2% of people are unemployed.

I would like to make a final comment on the RDA—I am sure that many hon. Members will welcome my saying that. Other RDAs may not have been a resounding success, but One NorthEast was. It was an organisation that we could be proud of. It played a huge role in developing the region’s renewable industries and in helping local firms grow. More importantly for me was that it also put together strategic land and other assets—packages—to build on for the future. With the demise of One NorthEast comes the question of what will happen to its assets. I am very worried that the Government might be preparing a fire sale for billions of pounds of RDA assets, such as business parks and development land, or that they will just pool them into some central bureaucracy in London. We argue that local enterprise partnerships should have first say over the RDA assets, which would enable real local influence. LEPs currently have one hand tied behind their backs, with no dedicated funding stream to aid them with their start-up costs and initial research. That would give them a real boost and real clout. To deny them operating funds is like giving a child a toy and forgetting to put the batteries in it.

Tees Valley Unlimited, the new LEP in my area, has confirmed that it has submitted 20 bids to the Government’s regional growth fund, asking for almost £80m of support. If granted, I am told that those plans have the potential to create a significant number of jobs. However, as we know all too well, the total pot of money for the regional growth fund is not nearly enough at £1.4 billion over three years. In comparison, in 2010-11 alone, the RDA fund for one year was £1.4 billion. It is clear that the money will be spread thinly. In the first round, which closed in January, bids worth £2.78 billion were made to the regional growth fund. Clearly, many bidders will be disappointed tomorrow, when I understand that we will learn who has, and who has not, been successful.

On a more positive note, I was pleased to learn in October that the Government are committed to offshore wind and did not cut Labour’s £60 million investment in our ports to ensure that that part of the renewable industry is supported and encouraged to invest in the north-east. We have yet to see whether the Government will deliver on that. If we are to meet EU targets that require Britain to increase the proportion of electricity that comes from renewable sources, from 7% to 30% by 2020, the Government must do more on renewable industry. Despite rising unemployment and the sluggish economy, there are a few good stories in region. The Hitachi trains were mentioned earlier, and the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for investment from Sahaviriya Steel Industries in Teesside steel, will create or secure hundreds of jobs.

We wait to see whether there will be a Budget for real growth, backed by substantial resources when the Chancellor stands up tomorrow. Resources must be the key. A jobless recovery would be a disaster for our region, and without growth there will not be enough new jobs. So far, the Government have been much too focused on the Budget deficit, cutting too far and too fast. I hope that they have finally realised that without a genuine plan for growth and real resources, the economy will continue to be sluggish.

It is a pleasure to address colleagues under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh, for the first time, I believe. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this debate, and hon. Members on their interesting contributions. I wish we had more time, because I am sure that more could be added to the debate. I shall not deal with each of the speeches now but will refer to them in my comments.

It is imperative that the north-east has a strong voice in Parliament. The new generation of MPs who came into Parliament in the last general election are a powerful group who have contributed hugely to the voice of that region being heard in Parliament, and I am sure that they will continue to do that. That is enormously important when we know that regional assemblies have gone away for a while and that the Government’s focus is on local government.

The north-east is a powerful region. I was born there, and I am proud of the fact that I come from there. It has a distinct identity within England, and Ministers have to understand that. The voices that we have heard included that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who spoke about Newcastle airport. She told us how important its development has been to the region and how it has introduced so many more tourists to the area. People are able to see what a beautiful region it is and what a superb place it is to invest in.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland about the varied industries in the north-east, from the chemicals sector, which is long established on Teesside, through, of course, to coal, steel and shipbuilding, which, I am afraid is long gone. The demise of those industries under the previous Conservative Government largely forged my identity in politics. The concern of Opposition Members is that the policies that are being pursued by this Government are a rerun of policies in the 1980s. We profoundly disagreed with what happened and think that it is a mistake to repeat it.

The hon. Member for Wrexham—I am sorry, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—made some succinct comments about the deficit. Labour Members accept that it needs to be reduced, but we remember that 3.5 million people were unemployed in the United Kingdom under the previous Conservative Government, as opposed to the 2.5 million who are unemployed now. All those people received benefits that were paid from taxpayers’ money, and largely funded by the benefits the Conservatives received from the North sea oil revenues that were available at the time. That waste and spending of public money will be repeated if this Government continue with their policies, which will create a lack of confidence in the economy and business community, and less demand in the economy, less consumption by people and a smaller market. All that will lead to increased unemployment, increased burdens on the state and the type of long-standing depression that we had in the ’80s and again in the ’90s, when unemployment reached 3.5 million again.

Fortunately, the north-east has developed its economy since the 1980s. There has been development in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) at the Clipper site, which is a magnificent site on the banks of the Tyne, and development of the low-carbon industry in the north-east with companies such as Romag, which brings so much benefit and forward thinking to industry.

I should mention at this juncture the appalling decision by the Government to bring forward the review on feed-in tariffs, which is hugely damaging for companies such as Romag. The Government purport to know something about business, but that review will result in a lack of long-term stability for decision making. Business complains so much about that. The Government are changing a successful scheme, bringing forward a review, creating instability and creating difficulties for successful businesses that are benefiting not from state support but from direct investment, often from outside the UK. The whole industry would welcome the Government’s looking at that again.

It is important that we accept that regional development agencies are no more. I have attended several debates, and know about the success of One NorthEast. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) recognised it in an interesting speech. However, we are moving on. The Government, as they are entitled to, are talking about local enterprise partnerships now, and we need to ensure that they work for the benefit of the north-east region. We need to address what I consider to be some of the failings of LEPs.

The first failing is the lack of resources. LEPs cannot sensibly contribute to driving the region forward if they do not have the resources to set up and develop businesses in their area. It is important that the partnerships should have resources. Of course they need to work with other LEPs in the region, but it is interesting that the Government themselves are showing a lack of confidence in LEPs; for example, on the hugely important issue of broadband. The authority that will contract for the provision of broadband services in the north-east and other areas of England will not be the LEP but the local authorities in individual regions. Having so many contracting bodies trying to formulate an infrastructure for a communications industry will be complex and difficult, and relying on delivery by individual local authorities which may or may not decide to take forward applications to develop broadband services in their area is a big mistake. LEPs, which cover larger areas and which more closely involve business than some local authorities do, should have a role in formulating a policy to take that forward.

The instruments that need to be used by LEPs must be made available to them by the Government. That must include, to some extent, financing, and it must also include the ability at least to be involved in securing funding.

We have heard references to the regional growth fund. There is general agreement in this room that there should be a rebalancing of the economy. The irony of the regional growth fund is that it is not regional at all. Its approach is entirely centralising. It is based not on localities but on a small group of people in a centralised area making decisions for areas about which they know little. That is the tragedy of the operation of the regional growth fund.

We all know that the fund is too small. The number of bids that have been made to it do not correspond in any way to the money that was available through RDAs, and we all know, as the hon. Member for Redcar pointed out, that the limits on the application of money by the regional growth fund are such that many of the grants and support that were given to small businesses in the regions will no longer be available to them. That is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed by the Government.

The other urgent issue that needs to be addressed is the lack of investment by banks and regional bodies in business and industry. We heard a massive amount about that from the Government when they were in opposition—day in, day out—but it has largely disappeared from their public pronouncements. I regret that the only thing that this Government have done as far as investment in business is concerned is to extend Labour’s successful enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which was a strong support for business and industry at a time when it was difficult to secure investment and keep businesses going.

I have only a minute left, so I cannot give way.

I remember being criticised by the Minister when I sat where he is sitting now, and I shall criticise him now, although he and I get along very well. I do not recall his criticising me for spending too much money at the time. I remember his criticising me for not getting money out more quickly in support of the car industry. I do not remember the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats opposing the introduction of the car scrappage scheme, and I do not remember their opposing any of the support that brought fundamental investment to the UK and benefited regions such as the north-east. Only now do we hear their constant mantra. The Government’s problem is that they will not reduce the deficit. They are damaging the economy in the same way as they did in the north-east in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. I hope and pray that they do not make the same mistake again.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) not only on the debate, but on an interesting contribution. We may disagree about the outcomes and the analysis, but a debate on how to enable different parts of the United Kingdom to grow sustainably is important. This is the first time I have been described as a McCarthyite zealot, but I shall work my way through it, and the hon. Gentleman hinted that he was perhaps not fully serious. Nevertheless, I shall put that comment up on the wall and remember.

I thank other hon. Members for their contributions. We have had an excellent and balanced debate, and it has been helpful, not least because I shall be travelling to the north-east tomorrow night, and I am looking forward to meeting some of the businesses that have been referred to. On the tourism front, if I am allowed a couple of days off during the Easter holidays, I am hoping to start at the north-eastern end of Hadrian’s wall and to head westwards.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman will spend some of his money in our tourist industry in the north-east of England. Is he aware that money to promote tourism in the north-east was choked off through the regional development agency this year, and that we saw an increase in the number of visitors to Yorkshire and Cumbria to the detriment of the north-east?

The hon. Gentleman started well, before coming to a money issue. We are looking not only at the need to deal with public finances, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) accurately described, but at how they are organised as we change the landscape for public bodies. We must revisit the regional approach to tourism, allied with the RDAs’ work, which is what VisitEngland will do with local enterprise partnerships and so on. I greatly value the role of tourism, but I want to move on.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) referred to airports, and she will understand that as it is just 24 hours before the Budget, I would be wise not to pre-empt the Chancellor, not least if I hope to continue to be Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

We all share the wish of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland that the north-east enjoys sustainable and long-term economic growth, which is certainly our overriding priority. We are seeking not only to tackle the public finances, as any incoming responsible Government would need to do, but to ensure that we have a new model for growth. In practice, that means not just rebalancing the geography, challenging as that will be—I will come to RDAs and LEPs—but ensuring more sustainable roles in different sectors.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) was a Minister, and we jousted when he was, but he and his colleagues were right when they established, for example, the sector skills council, Automotive Skills, so that the Government could be a better partner. We have continued it, and that sectoral role is important. In the Budget tomorrow, we will seek not merely conventional tax and spend, but to set out the detailed work that has been undertaken throughout Whitehall on a growth review looking at manufacturing, construction, retail and other core parts of the economy, so that we have an agenda and a strategy that is the most comprehensive, pro-enterprise and pro-growth Budget for a generation.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland mentioned both at the beginning of his comments and later the role of small and medium-sized enterprises. Before I go into the specifics of the north-east’s economy and LEPs, it might be worth reminding hon. Members of the key changes that will help, and have already been announced, irrespective of what may or may not be said tomorrow. As hon. Members know, we are reducing corporation tax to 20p. We are doubling the threshold for small business rate relief, which is very important for businesses outside the greater south-east, so that for more smaller businesses that fixed overhead will fall instead of remaining as it is. Six months ago, we introduced the national insurance contribution holiday for new firms.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we must encourage more entrepreneurs in the north-east. I have spoken to many SMEs throughout the country, and the shift in relief for entrepreneurs—10% capital gains tax—has given a boost to people who start a business, build a business and create jobs. Taking the limit up to £5 million is an important improvement.

With respect to the hon. Lady, other hon. Members have spoken and I should first respond to their points in the five minutes remaining.

The tax changes are important, and I hope that hon. Members recognise that they have been matched with a clear commitment to the Federation of Small Businesses on Friday that, for three years, microbusinesses—those with up to 10 employees—will have a three-year moratorium on all domestic regulation. Many SMEs have told me that the problem is not just one measure, but the fact that the Government constantly provide things to do when they want to get on and grow their business. That moratorium will be important, and it has been warmly welcomed. More will be said about the regulatory issue later.

My opposite number, the hon. Member for Wrexham—for a moment, I thought there had been a geographical shift when he referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham as the hon. Member for Wrexham—talked about finance. He was right to say that there are issues. We have extended the enterprise finance guarantee, which is a scheme that needed to be extended, and we are proud that we have ensured an additional capital opportunity of some £2 billion. That should help about 6,000 additional viable businesses. We have gone further and put another £200 million to one side for capital for equity investment programmes. Those are important plans to help high-growth businesses throughout the UK. In addition, we have managed to secure from the banks a £1.5 billion growth fund to inject into SMEs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that those are important changes.

With respect to the hon. Lady, I have three minutes left. She did not make a contribution to the debate, and I must respond to hon. Members who spoke.

On the balance, there are challenges in the north-east, and no one denies that, but we should recognise that manufacturing there is doing well. A survey by British Chambers of Commerce shows that for the most recent quarter manufacturing grew most quickly in the north-east out of all the regions. Hon. Members have rightly referred to the decision on Tata Steel and Sahaviriya Steel Industries, and we hope that it will progress in the next few days or weeks, so that the agreement that was tragically mothballed a while back will be developed. Some 800 jobs will be created at the site, which will sit alongside the existing 700 jobs, but that is not all. There is a £420 million investment by Nissan, and the Hitachi development in County Durham, which are very welcome and very important.

I turn to RDAs and LEPs, where there may be a difference. No one denies that the RDAs, including One NorthEast, made successful and worthwhile ventures during their time—I accept that—but in 11 years, that agency received £2.7 billion to spend, and the reality is that the gap between the north-east and elsewhere grew. The reality of the gross value added—the measure per person—is that when it started it was approximately 83% of the national average in the north-east. Eleven years later, having spent £2.7 billion, it fell to 78%. It has not only not improved, but gone backwards.

There is a challenge, and the two partnerships that have been created, which I greatly welcome and am looking forward to meeting tomorrow and Thursday, have an opportunity to address their local priorities rather than what we think is best for them, which is an important shift. They can work together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) has rightly pointed out, because they do not need Government permission to do so. I have every confidence that the business and civic communities will make that alliance and work together. We will set out the specific actions that they will be able to undertake. I will respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar in writing about the regional growth fund.

The enterprise zones, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) has campaigned on—