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Business Support (Lancaster and Fleetwood)

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about my constituency. It is always a pleasure and an opportunity to give Ministers more information about the needs of the area, as I am sure it is a pleasure for them to hear it. I want to focus on the experiences and needs of businesses there, and say a little about the economic development that is also needed.

By way of background, Fleetwood is an old fishing port that is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year; I am almost repeating what I said in the previous debate. The fishing fleet has seriously declined over the past few decades, to the point that, although a few dozen fishing boats are registered at Fleetwood, only three boats actually now fish from the site. Until recently, Stena Lines ran a ferry route from Fleetwood to Larne in Northern Ireland; it withdrew the route back in December.

Fish processing is the main industry, and the internationally famous Fisherman’s Friend is also a large employer. Transport links are poor, however. According to the Association of Train Operators, Fleetwood is part of one of the largest urban areas in the country without a direct rail link, something that I raised—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

I raised the issue of a direct rail link in a Westminster Hall debate a couple of weeks ago, and the only other transport link is a single-lane road, the A585, from the motorway. The overriding story, as everyone in Fleetwood will say, is that the town has suffered significantly in recent years, largely as the use of the port has declined.

Lancaster, at the other extreme of the constituency, is also an old port city, and it has a great heritage. Its medieval castle includes the only example left in England of anything that was built by John of Gaunt, and its tourist potential is strong. Lancaster university is ranked in the top 10 by The Times, it has a large campus and its research is driving many business developments in the area. What Lancaster lacks is a large modern department store, meaning that its retail business pales in comparison with places such as Preston, which is increasingly taking business away. I hope that a proposed development, known as Centros, will resolve that in the next few years, so long as English Heritage can overcome some points of detail which have held up the project.

We also have a large rural area, with small hill farms and various other businesses established around the city boundaries, but again there is a problem with a lack of rural broadband, particularly in the hills surrounding Lancaster, so the question is: how do we help business and the private sector in Lancaster and Fleetwood to grow?

Much of what is needed is the same as what businesses need all over the country, and I will start with the generic, throw in some local examples and then move on to some more constituency concerns. The outcome of Project Merlin, to get the banks to lend more—an extra £11 billion this year compared with 2010—is obviously welcome, but perhaps one of the biggest complaints that I still receive, from small businesses especially, is that they continue to struggle to secure finance from the banks, whether new capital or just an overdraft extension. In many cases there is simply a lack of good customer service, with bank managers and decision makers not being available.

For example, Mr lain Bailey, a small businessman based in Lancaster, says that he still struggles to engage productively with his bank when he needs to; that

“many businesses feel banks have left us all adrift”;

and that it is simply

“up to the businesses themselves to sort things out!”

My local chamber of commerce, Lancaster chamber of commerce, in its most recent members survey on finance and banking, received a number of disconcerting comments. Here are just a few examples from individual businesses in Lancaster. One said:

“Our bank is very unhelpful at the moment and have no leeway and appear to be too inflexible.”

Another business person said:

“I was refused a formal overdraft increase but allowed excess at punitive cost.”

A further business noted:

“Even though we had a business account with our bank for over 25 years they refused to even give us an answer when we applied for a loan.”

And finally, one more business explained:

“I asked to increase my overdraft to help ease cash flow but our bank forced us to reduce it by £10,000 instead!"

It is clear that in some cases the banks are still not living up to their end of the bargain, so perhaps the Minister will let me know where we are on bank lending, and whether there is any mechanism that will allow businesses, or perhaps MPs acting on their behalf, to report ongoing problems for his Department to follow up.

I welcome the end of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, and the new local enterprise partnership structure should lead to more targeted, specific and relevant assistance for places such as Lancaster and Fleetwood. One problem with the Northwest Regional Development Agency involved the fact that, for many of us in the region, the view rapidly developed that the north-west began and ended in Manchester and on Merseyside. Sadly, I will have to return to that theme later, but if I do nothing else today I hope to make it clear to the Minister that that is definitely not the case.

I also think that the new local enterprise partnership—LEP—structures can lead to more direct input from local businesses, and that can only be good for ensuring that schemes are of real practical value. In Lancashire we have taken slightly longer than some other places to get our LEP agreed, but I thank the Minister’s Department for its help in finally enabling us to bring the various parts of Lancashire together. I put on record my personal thanks to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for his efforts in trying to ensure that Lancashire finally got a Lancashire-wide LEP.

However, in the interim period local businesses are very uncertain about how the new regime will work. The Lancaster chamber of commerce—and it is not alone—says that it needs more clarification on what support there will be, who will deliver it, and how to access it. Once Business Link regional services close, people wonder what vehicle will be used to keep businesses informed of what support is available. They need to know more about the mechanisms that will be available to support and encourage new businesses, to assist potential high-growth businesses and to encourage business development in areas of deprivation, and about how the interrelations between the various councils, regenerations and Government bodies is to develop. There is still work to be done, especially as our LEP has only just started to be set up. I urge the Minister to ensure that there is as much communication as possible with local businesses, and particularly local chambers of commerce, over the next few months so that the various communities can begin to plan properly for the future.

According to the Library, 42.2% of the population of Lancaster and Fleetwood is employed in the public sector—the 37th highest proportion in the UK. As cuts are made to public spending, the Government’s agenda for growth in the private sector will be disproportionately important in constituencies such as mine, and I want to ensure that we get our fair share of resources and that all that can be done to encourage private sector growth in my area is done.

The regional growth fund is a big opportunity for businesses, an opportunity for individual companies, and a help in regenerating the whole area. In the north-west we have welcomed the Government’s recognition of the distinction between the south-east and the east and the rest of the country, and the fact that the regional growth fund’s priority is our kind of area. The first round of successful regional growth fund bids lists an impressive number of jobs that the supported first round schemes will help to create or maintain in the wider north-west.

However, my concern about the first round process is that a lot of the criteria are determined by European subsidy rules, which in effect means that support for large companies can be offered only to particularly low-employment or deprived parts of the country. Assisted areas in the north-west include Liverpool, St Helens and parts of Manchester. The other parts of the north-west are missing. For example, a major manufacturer based in Lancaster that employs 150 people wanted to expand, and was looking into the possibility of bidding for regional growth fund money to do so. It was determined that it could provide 50% more jobs through its expansion. However, its turnover was above the threshold for assistance outside the special assisted areas, and it was effectively hamstrung in terms of accessing regional growth fund money. I remind the Minister that this is about the possibility of new jobs.

Those rules have thus resulted in most of the resources of the first round regional growth fund bids going to big city areas such as Manchester and Liverpool—precisely the situation that I had hoped the break up of the RDAs was going to help to avoid. We accept that this will help my constituents, many of whom either already commute to Manchester each day or would be prepared to do so. However, I hope that phase 2 of the bidding process will include more support for north-west companies outside Manchester and Liverpool—companies that can show that they can provide the extra jobs and growth that I understood were this Government’s priority.

Perhaps that would be more likely to happen if more bids were accepted from small and medium-sized enterprises, but the return on investment required for a successful regional growth fund bid has in some ways limited applications from that sector. SMEs often do not have the resources to compile the data required for entering into the bidding process—at least not on their own—and so we come back to support for businesses in terms of information and guidance to help them through the bidding process.

That brings me on to the related subject of enterprise zones. I broadly welcome the Government’s creation of enterprise zones. They have the potential to bring much-needed investment into areas that need jobs and regeneration. They also have a key role to play in closing the north-south divide and rebalancing the economy, which is a major aim of the Government. Of the 11 zones that have been announced, the two in the north-west are in—you’ve guessed it—Manchester and Liverpool. Although I welcome those zones because they will drag business northwards and create hubs of industry that neighbouring areas can feed off, I am concerned that, yet again, it is the big cities of the north-west that will get the immediate benefit. I hope that more original locations will emerge when the remaining 10 enterprise zones are allocated, possibly helping areas further north than Manchester. An enterprise zone on the Fylde coast, for example, would be welcome, because it would help to provide jobs not only for my constituents in Fleetwood, but in the wider areas of Blackpool and Fylde, as well as providing new business orders for local businesses.

Transport infrastructure is also necessary for businesses to thrive. The coalition has done well in that area so far. After years of underinvestment in our transport network under Labour, in just one year there has been a lot of good news for the north-west, and for my constituents in particular. The renewal of the west coast franchise offers extra capacity for the overcrowded rail services on that route. In the longer term, High Speed 2 offers more capacity, speed and choice for journeys to London and, ultimately, Scotland. It might also open a direct link to Heathrow and the channel tunnel.

As usual, my hon. Friend is making a passionate case for his business community. He makes an important point about high-speed rail. Is he aware that evidence from other countries shows that the success of a high-speed line often depends on the degree of connectivity to the termini of those lines from areas such as his? We should do all we can to encourage businesses to make their voices heard in the current high-speed rail consultation.

My hon. Friend makes a significant point. High Speed 2 is critical to the north-west and to Yorkshire. We should talk about it as a line that will go from London to Manchester and from London to Leeds, and eventually from London to Glasgow and from London to Edinburgh. As hon. Members may know, I have said in other places that I do not see why we do not start building south from Glasgow and Edinburgh now, while the areas around London argue about where their terminus will be. The point is clear: High Speed 2 is vital in the long term for business in my area, and in my constituency in particular.

The other helpful development is the proposed northern hub, which will allow faster and more frequent services between the cities of the north and bring an estimated £4 billion of benefits to the region. That will be good for business and for job creation. In particular, the electrification of the line from Preston to Blackpool will be a major help to the growth of business in my area.

I am also pleased that the Department for Transport has finally agreed that the M6 to Heysham link road should go ahead. It has been on the drawing board for 50-odd years. When it is finally built, it should lead to better communication to the port of Heysham, which will help businesses and attract new businesses on both the Morecambe and Lancaster sides of the River Lune, and along the M6 corridor.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the new link road will create pockets of investment in my constituency and in his constituency next door?

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for his support in working with the chamber of commerce, the county council and Ministers to help them see the importance of that scheme, which promises much for business.

The transport links to Fleetwood remain poor. I have raised with Ministers the fact that although there is about four and a half or five miles of railway line in Fleetwood, unfortunately there are no trains on it. There is a plan, with the support of the council, to get that development, which needs capital of about £6 million. I will come back to those figures in a minute.

My last general point is that I fully support the plans to reduce the amount of red tape that businesses have to fight through. We need economic growth, and it is only right that we should make it as easy as possible for businesses and entrepreneurs to start up companies and create the jobs that are so badly needed. That is the greatest area in which businesses have asked me for support and talked about their hopes from the coalition.

The Government’s war on red tape—the red tape challenge, I think it has been branded—is welcomed by all businesses. I know that many previous Governments have talked the talk, but I hope this Administration will finally walk the walk. I am particularly hopeful of that because I know that the Minister has that type of background and has personal experience. I am sure that he will put his full weight behind the deregulation drive.

Those are the general issues, but I also wish to mention one or two specific local examples to demonstrate the problems. The first is that of a company called Nitratec, which is based in Fleetwood and supplies trucks and trailers both new and used for the UK and export markets. It asked me to visit last year. It was having a particular problem in getting help to access export markets, particularly in some less usual export destinations. For instance, it was keen to grow into Africa and Kurdistan. As it happened, I was able to put it on to the British embassy in Iraq via a couple of contacts, and I understand that that side of things is now going well. The lesson is that perhaps we could still be doing more to help companies understand where they can go to get assistance if they want to export goods or services. In that instance, it was just a fluke that I had contacts in the particular area where the company wanted to develop, but why should a business that has such potential have to rely on the chance nature of its MP’s contacts?

Increasing exports is, of course, a major policy plank for the UK. I note that only yesterday, the Foreign Secretary told the House that if we could increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprise exporters in this country from one in five to the EU average of one in four, the extra exports from Britain would more than cancel out the trade deficits that we have experienced in recent years. I hope that more can be done to help companies get on the right track.

I shall give another example. Paul Banks is a constituent of mine who has a start-up business in Lancaster called Image Alchemy. It is highly innovative, as I saw when I visited him a couple of months ago. His potential for further growth is extremely high, and Lancaster university’s environment centre has recently “adopted” him, marking his business out as worthy of support. His new prototype system was an immediate hit at a recent German trade fair and a fair at the national exhibition centre in Birmingham, and order inquiries came pouring in. To get the system to production he needs to get finance, which could mean the immediate creation of five new jobs in the community.

Mr Banks has funded the new product with his own money, but he has struggled to access local and EU funding designed to help expand small start-ups such as his. The bureaucracy that he has encountered in seeking a small five-figure sum has bogged him down with repetitive form-filling, but the rewards if his expansion can be aided are potentially huge. The key point that I wish to underline is the small sum needed to get the company launched. We need to make it easier for such businesses to find funding, especially when the sums needed are so small.

Another example is a scheme called the fish park in Fleetwood. One of the plans for the regeneration of Fleetwood was to develop a sea and shellfish processing park, providing a new unit for the already resident company AM Seafoods and various other units for some 20 SMEs. The industry is already worth some £135 million and 660 jobs to the local economy, but the enhancement and modern premises could mean the addition of 150 new jobs in a town that needs private sector growth.

A partnership between Wyre borough council, Lancashire county council and AM Seafoods is in place, and the plan is to split the costs 50:50 between the private and public sector. The public sector amount required is £6 million. The point that I am trying to make is that the sums needed in areas outside the major areas of deprivation are quite small, but the resulting employment would be quite large. In my postbag and my surgeries, virtually every fortnight I hear of a new business, whether small or large—although the businesses in my area are not huge—that has the same problem. Through innovation or expanding on existing orders, they could provide the extra jobs that the economy needs, but at the moment there seems no way for them to get assistance with that growth, and certainly not from the banks.

I need to give the Minister time to reply. I should like him to reconsider regional stock exchanges, and I should like him to consider enterprise zones being part and parcel of every university campus, to enable universities to develop innovation. Most of all, I look for some assistance from the Government, or for them to put pressure on banks to provide that much-needed assistance, so that we get the growth we need.

I am extremely grateful for the chance to respond to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) on securing it. My last dealings with Fleetwood directly were around a decade ago, when, as shadow fisheries Minister, I visited that splendid town and stayed at the North Euston hotel, which is, of course, part of the Mount, which is perhaps the jewel in the crown—if I might put it that way—of Fleetwood.

How appropriate that we should today have this Adjournment debate following a debate on fishing, which forms such an important part of Fleetwood’s history. As I recall from my time as shadow fisheries Minister and from information I have gained somewhat later, 1,000 people are still employed in that industry, mostly in fish processing. As my hon. Friend said in his excellent speech, many more people are, I suspect, employed producing Fishermen’s Friends, which I understand are particularly popular in Japan.

John Ruskin said that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not aspire to be a truly great man, but I do aspire to humility, and I should say at the outset that I could never know as much as my hon. Friend about his constituency, nor speak with the passion about it that he has demonstrated today. He comes to the House with a long and proud history in local government, and already, he has brought an energy, enthusiasm, commitment and, if I may say, an expertise to his dealings in this place as the representative of his splendid constituency.

I shall try to respond to as many of the points that my hon. Friend raised as I can, although he will appreciate that time is short. He knows how deeply the Government are committed to encouraging renewed economic growth and the new jobs and businesses that will spring from that, and I draw his attention to the work done leading up to today and the announcement on youth employment made this afternoon by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, with which I was pleased to be involved. They announced new policies for encouraging more apprenticeships, which is a subject dear to my heart, and for work placements and experience as a means of moving people from economic disengagement to engagement.

That will resonate in Fleetwood, as my hon. Friend suggests, but ensuring that we take advantage of the capital that lies, sometimes unused, among those who are currently disengaged, is a challenge for the whole country. The investment infrastructure to which he drew attention also means investing in human infrastructure. That is a central pillar of the Government’s macro-economic plans. It would be impossible to recalibrate the economy to make it more sustainable if we did not make that kind of investment, as he properly said.

Just as the Government have been honest with the British people about the scale of the deficit and its implications, we must now accept that the struggle for growth will not be without its setbacks. For example, I was particularly saddened to hear from my hon. Friend of Stena Line’s recent decision to close its service between Fleetwood and Larne, although I understand that the service operated at a loss for some time.

Having said that, just as we accept bad news, we should celebrate good news—better tidings, if I can put it that way. Only the other day, I was heartened to read in the Blackpool Gazette, which is always on my bedside table, as one might imagine, that my hon. Friend had formally opened the delightfully named Strawberry Gardens pub in Fleetwood. I gather that that is the first pub to be opened by the new and even more inventively titled Fuzzy Duck brewery, which has been set up in his constituency. I can assure him of my best wishes for their success.

The creation of a small business such as that one illustrates a fundamentally important point, as my hon. Friend said, for small businesses are the bedrock of our economy. Businesses in Lancaster and Fleetwood are primarily small and medium-sized enterprises, and the issues they face are typical of those experienced by companies across the country over the past few years. SMEs account for more than 99% of private businesses, and about half of all jobs. I do not need to tell you that, Mr Deputy Speaker, given your background and your commitment to that sector based on personal and family experience.

As my hon. Friend suggested, I, too, have a background in business, having been a businessman in the IT industry before coming to this place. I fully appreciate his points about regulation and tax, and in particular about the need to invest in small businesses—and, for that reason, the importance of banks getting behind those businesses, to allow them to form and to grow.

What, he might ask, are we doing to help with all that? Well, we will enable better access to both debt and equity finance. We will ensure that we have a predictable tax system that rewards endeavour. We will also reduce red tape and ensure that the support that we provide SMEs is delivered in the most effective and efficient way possible. I hope to return to one or two of those points in more detail, but I want to emphasise access to finance in particular, as that was a central part of my hon. Friend’s speech. As he said, the flow of credit to viable SMEs is essential for supporting growth; and indeed, that is the core priority for this Government. We recognise the problems faced by small firms that do not have adequate security to obtain finance. That is why we have decided to continue the enterprise finance guarantee until 2015, to unlock up to £2 billion of additional lending to SMEs. The latest figures show that 18 businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency have so far been offered and have drawn down EFG-backed loans worth over £2 million.

The EFG scheme is of course intended to complement rather than replace mainstream bank lending. This Government have made considerable efforts to get the banks to meet the demand for credit from viable SMEs. Under the Project Merlin agreement, the banks have committed to make available £190 billion of new credit in 2011, of which £76 billion will be for SMEs—a 15% increase on the £66 billion lent in 2010. Clearly Banks still need to make commercial decisions, and it is not for the Government to intervene in these. In view of that, I would encourage any businesses having difficulties with their bank to continue to engage with the bank to try to resolve the issue.

My hon. Friend also made the important point that we need an independent review of such matters when things do not go right; and indeed, an independent reviewer has been appointed to monitor the banks’ appeal processes. He will publish an annual report on the effectiveness of those processes. The appeal process that we have set up is sensitive to the very sound points that my hon. Friend made. He can feel absolutely assured that this Minister, in this Department, along with my hon. Friends, will ensure that small businesses get the backing that they need and deserve.

My hon. Friend also talked about business mentors and advice. It is critical that we establish a network of experienced business mentors offering practical advice to existing businesses and people who want to start a business. We are setting up a new business coaching for growth programme to enable new small businesses with high growth potential to realise that potential. We are also refocusing the Solutions for Business range of products, so that they are better focused on helping firms grow.

We are also establishing local enterprise partnerships. We expect the new LEPs to be able to provide help to small firms, both with advice and by bringing together useful partnerships that will allow the sharing of good practice across the private and public sectors. That increased coherence will help my hon. Friend’s constituency, as it will others, in the ways that he requested. As set out in the White Paper, local enterprise partnerships will play diverse roles, reflecting the differing local priorities in different areas. These will include ensuring that both planning and infrastructure investment support business needs, and working with Government to support enterprise, innovation, global trade and inward investment. He will also know that we announced 11 enterprise zones in the Budget. They will be hosted by LEPs and will bring together a wide range of tools and incentives in an unashamedly pro-growth way, giving power back to local communities and businesses.

My hon. Friend has done a service to this House in highlighting the important issues facing his constituency. They reflect those facing constituencies up and down this country. He can be assured that this is a Government who are pro-business, pro-enterprise, pro-growth, pro his constituency and pro-him.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.