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Economic Development (Barnsley)

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Clark. It is worth prefacing what I want to say in this debate with a few remarks about the town of Barnsley. It is a proud borough, which is characterised historically by the efforts of hard-working people. It now has a high proportion of welfare claimants, but let us remember that this area was at the heart of the fight for jobs in the 1980s. Coal miners in Barnsley fought a long, hard battle, at considerable personal cost, to keep their jobs—their battle cry was “Coal not dole”—so when we think of Barnsley as it is now, let us remember that this is an area in which people want to work. Their pride is built on their contribution to Britain’s economic performance in the past, a contribution that I would argue is not easily surpassed.

Seventy per cent. of Barnsley is rural. Indeed, part of it is in the Peak District national park. It is characterised not just by the most outstanding natural beauty that it is possible to find in the UK, but by a string of stately homes on the western side. That needs to be put on the record much more often than it is, because the images presented of Barnsley at a national level and in the media are invariably negative. Even some of those images presented in Parliament are incredibly negative. Those of us who live in the area know that Barnsley offers a superb quality of life. Perhaps Government themselves could do more to promote Barnsley as a place to live and work.

It is also important to put on the record that Barnsley had recovered to some extent from where it was about 15 years ago. It is now firmly in the global digital age, with a wide range of modern companies. If we now endure the humiliation of coal being taken to Barnsley, it is also true that Fosters bakery—one of the big employers in the town—sells its baguettes in France. The town has hidden secrets here and there, but a borough cannot live on bread alone, and Barnsley still has a long way to go.

Barnsley’s economy shrank by an alarming degree in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the demise of the coal industry left it bereft of alternative job opportunities. The inter-generational legacy of employment in hard manual labour—nowadays we talk about the inter-generational legacy of unemployment—was abruptly stopped and the social infrastructure provided by the largest employer in the town was withdrawn. That is often overlooked when we think of the social problems that are experienced in some of our ex-mining areas. We forget that one of the biggest providers of social and sporting opportunities was the coal board. The old social club network that was created in steel and coal has largely disappeared and has been left to fend for itself.

Recovery from that catastrophe was hard but, as I have said, progress was made only for everything to be sent backwards by the recession of 2008-09. Barnsley was always going to take longer to recover compared with other areas, but the recession and now the flatlining of the economy threaten the long-term recovery of that once great town.

It is not difficult to see what needs to be done. We need private sector growth in Barnsley—nobody has ever denied that or said any different. We need that growth to build the jobs and the sustainable prosperity that the borough so badly needs. We need to rebuild what has been lost in the local economy in the past 25 years. That is even more the case now thanks to the impending loss of public sector jobs, as the Government’s huge cuts bite locally.

Before outlining what the Government could specifically do to support economic growth in Barnsley, it is worth spelling out the extent of the barriers that Barnsley still faces and that hold the town back from realising its full potential. First, it needs placing on the record that Barnsley has the lowest job density rate in the Yorkshire region at 0.56. An extra 32,000 jobs would need to be created in the borough to reach the national level.

Secondly, Barnsley has a below average stock of business. It currently has around 4,920 VAT-registered businesses, which is a deficit of around 1,500 businesses compared with the regional average. Barnsley also has a higher than average concentration of businesses in risk averse sectors, for example, construction, retail and transport. Those sectors are likely to be affected by future economic uncertainty and limited short-term growth. Barnsley also continues to lag behind national and regional survival rates for new businesses.

My hon. Friend is speaking powerfully about Barnsley. Many of the things she is saying could be said about other former coalfield areas. I am sure that she will go on to mention this, but is it not important for the Government to have a strategy for all the former coalfield areas?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, the north-east, south Wales and Kent are all areas where the withdrawal of the UK from mining coal and from allowing coal to make a contribution to the UK national economy has had a massive impact that has never been fully appreciated down here. The task of rebuilding those areas has also never been fully appreciated. Let us face it, one of the difficulties is that the coal industry was built around small villages. It is not easy to replicate an economic activity that is built around a series of small villages. It is easy to do so in Sheffield, where there are huge tracts of land and an economic centre to build on, but Barnsley is 70% rural, as I am sure my hon. Friend’s constituency is.

The Government are concentrating on foreign and direct investment and export-orientated companies, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that they concentrate more on the small, indigenous businesses? After all, no matter what part of the United Kingdom those businesses come from, they are the backbone of the economy.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I was going to go on to say that one of Barnsley’s problems is that it continues to lag behind national and regional survival rates for new small businesses. That, of course, limits increases in the business stock and, in the end, job opportunities for local people.

On the supply side of the equation, there are currently 6,962 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Barnsley. That is a rate of 4.7%, which is significantly higher than the national figure of 3.9%. Among young people, the figure is particularly high, with 12.1% aged 18 to 24 on JSA, compared with 7.8% nationally. Perhaps most startlingly of all, 20.7% of the working age population are claiming some form of out-of-work benefits, compared with 14.5% nationally.

At this point, I remind the Minister of my earlier comment that nowhere was the fight to save jobs in the 1980s more intense than in Barnsley. So please let us not assume that the high level of benefit claimants in Barnsley means that the area is somehow populated by the workshy, because that just is not the case. Indeed, I would argue that the opposite is true, and that the struggle to find work in an area such as Barnsley must be deeply dispiriting for a people who are for the most part proud of their community and their work ethic.

So what needs to be done? Well, the first and most important thing to say is that Barnsley needs a plan for jobs and growth from central Government. In other words, we need to get the economy moving again, and the Government could help to deliver the required stimulus in a number of ways. They could, for instance, support the development of the affordable and sustainable housing that the country so badly needs. They could also support more consistently the development of renewable technologies and the industry’s building around those technologies. Barnsley has around 30 solar-tech companies that employ hundreds of people in semi-skilled and skilled well-paid work. Yet, what we see at the moment is the pursuit of an appeal at the Supreme Court against the sudden and damaging reduction in the rate for the feed-in tariff scheme. We need more clarity and consistency from the Government and more awareness of the impact on business of sudden and damaging decisions, such as the one we saw in relation to FITs.

We also need the Government to reinstate the grant for business investment scheme that allowed small and medium-sized enterprises to make capital investments in plant and machinery where linked to company and job growth. That would be a more focused and useful means of supporting job creation than the regional growth fund, which is rapidly being discredited as it gets tangled in red tape. The regional growth fund is also failing to deliver the private sector leverage promised by the Deputy Prime Minister when he launched it. The biggest award so far has gone to a company in Chelmsford and is estimated to lever in just £3.70 for every £1 of RGF money allocated by the Government, compared with the £5 promised by the Deputy Prime Minister. Incidentally, Barnsley has not seen much of that money so far.

The Government also need to address the void left by Business Link Yorkshire. A national website is no substitute for the intensive and tailored support offered by Business Link, and we are worried that the gaps in provision may result in a higher than normal business failure rate. The Government also need to consider how best to deal with the problem of access to finance for SMEs in Barnsley, because business in the area is seen as inherently higher risk. Therefore, it is more difficult for companies to access finance for investment and expansion on sensible terms. The Minister’s commitment to at least look at that issue would be welcome. In other words, if businesses generally in this country are finding it hard to secure funding at sensible rates from banks, let us imagine how hard it is for businesses in Barnsley, where it is generally judged that they have a harder job to survive.

The Government also need to look at the work of UK Trade & Investment in attracting inward investment. If the Government are serious about rebalancing the economy, we need to see every part of what they do dedicated to that task. There is no better place to start than UKTI. Why not prioritise regions such as Yorkshire, particularly areas sorely in need of investment such as Barnsley, for UKTI investment—or rather for the investment that UKTI manages to secure from overseas sources? Why should the Government not put Barnsley first for a change, rather than London and the south-east?

Finally, we need more support for skills development in the borough. We need modern apprenticeship systems that are built on a long-term compact between labour and employers. Germany does that, and its youth unemployment rate is one third of the OECD average.

Barnsley is a proud town, which should have a prosperous future. It has been prosperous in the past. This country would not be what it is today if it had not been for the efforts and the sacrifices made by generation after generation of coal miners in places such as Barnsley—there is no doubt about that. Barnsley does not deserve to be where it is today. It deserves the support of the Government. The people living in Barnsley do not want to be dependent on benefits; they want a vibrant, diverse local economy. They want a Government who are committed to jobs and growth. They want a Government who are prepared to invest in a highly skilled work force—the work force that Barnsley needs for its future. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view on how best his Government can deliver what is necessary to achieve that.

I have not had an indication that another hon. Member wished to speak, so it is my intention to call the Minister. Has the hon. Lady who secured the debate had an indication that another hon. Member wished to speak, and have you given permission for that?

The normal convention would be for both the Minister and me to be informed, but that is not a problem in this case. I call Andrew Bingham.

I apologise, Ms Clark. I spotted this debate on the bottom of the Order Paper only late last night, so I apologise for waltzing in and expecting to speak. I was going to make my point in an intervention, but I felt that there was probably time to say a few words. Thank you for allowing me to speak, Ms Clark, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) makes a good case for her constituency and for Barnsley. One may ask the question, “Why would the hon. Member for High Peak wish to speak on a debate concerning Barnsley?” There is a simple reason: the A628, which is the arterial road that goes from Barnsley across the Pennines to Manchester through my constituency of High Peak. On that road, we have a serious problem that causes a hiatus for traffic. It is known as the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass and is well documented in Hansard. I met recently with a councillor from Barnsley who told me that one of the difficulties for people in Barnsley is that they cannot travel across the Pennines for employment opportunities in the Manchester area, because the hiatus on that road makes the journey impossible. I highlight that because if we could deal with that problem it would increase the throughput across.

I was heartened that in the autumn statement the Chancellor committed to £5 billion-worth of capital in the next spending review, so plans can start now. We have had meetings on this, and I hope the Government will listen to our pleas in the next spending review. That would enable employment in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

On a point of order, Miss Clark. This topic is more a matter for the Department for Transport than for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This debate is about jobs in Barnsley, not in Manchester.

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. My view was that transport links are very closely linked to issues of economic development, so I did not rule the hon. Gentleman out of order. Has the hon. Gentleman finished his speech?

Representatives from Barnsley council remarked on the transport links in relation to employment in the Barnsley area. That is my only reason for raising that point.

I now call the Minister to respond. Obviously, he will be able to respond only within the responsibilities of his Department.

This is the second time in two days that I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Clark—too much of a good thing. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing the debate. She spoke passionately about the area that she represents. She is right to say that it is stunningly beautiful. The image is often entirely inaccurate—the proud town that she talked about, and the surrounding area, has so much to commend it. Everyone, nationally and locally, should talk up the various regions of our country, particularly the region that she has spoken about today.

The hon. Lady spoke, rightly, about the challenges facing an area that has gone through a dramatic change with the loss of coal mining. As that industry was based in a rural area, it is difficult to rebuild the local economy. Governments of all complexions have faced those challenges. It is important for there to be room to debate how we should respond to those challenges, so I was delighted that the hon. Lady secured this debate.

Let me begin by dealing with the macro-economic context. The Government aim to achieve sustainable long-term economic growth to ensure that we rebalance the economy both geographically and in terms of business sectors. First, that means keeping interest rates low for longer and tackling the public sector deficit, which will be a continuing drag on capacity for growth unless we sort it out. Secondly, we need to invest in emerging technologies—the hon. Lady talked about the importance of renewable energy as a developing, emerging sector—but not rely on consumption to rebuild growth. We should be promoting innovation throughout the country, not just in the south-east, and also focusing—she mentioned UK Trade & Investment—on export potential and looking at what the regions that she and others who have spoken today represent can do to develop that potential.

Barnsley has a proud industrial heritage. Today, there are a number of key businesses in the borough, including the online fashion retailer ASOS and Fosters Bakery, to which the hon. Lady referred. Barnsley is making real progress in its transition from traditional coal mining and glass making to developing opportunities in new industries such as low-carbon, creative and the digital sectors. There are working environments for companies of all shapes and sizes, including the Digital Media Centre for creative and digital businesses; the Barnsley Business and Innovation Centre, which is spread over two sites and caters for a wide range of businesses; and a number of business centres and a broad range of industrial sites. Areas of Barnsley are also part of the enterprise zone within the Sheffield city region—I understand that it does not cover the town centre, but it does cover part of the council area.

The Enterprising Barnsley programme has helped to create more than 600 jobs and has protected almost 400 jobs since it was set up in 2009. By providing coaching support to companies it has supported 575 companies, which employ approximately 6,000 employees—nearly 10% of the borough’s total work force. Zebra Steel Fabrications, which makes architectural metalwork, has won several contracts in London close to the Olympic village site. AVQ Water Solutions has won contracts with South West Water that have enabled it to expand into new premises. Turnover is expected to increase threefold this year—a real local success story, which we should celebrate.

The “I Know I Can Barnsley Big Challenge 2011-12” competition is a borough-wide initiative that encourages young people between the ages of 11 and 19 to set up their own business in a supported environment, with the chance of receiving an initial £25 loan from a local entrepreneur, plus ongoing support, to help them develop their business idea to make money and to compete with other businesses for top honours. We should be encouraging those youngsters to become the entrepreneurs of the future. The hon. Lady was right to talk about the need to develop, in places such as Barnsley, a vibrant, diverse local economy—I think she used those words—and that depends on entrepreneurs coming through in future. Schemes such as that one should be applauded.

Barnsley market is important locally. I understand that negotiations are under way for the council to acquire the site so that regeneration can take place. It is important that that matter is concluded.

In terms of local growth, as a Government we recognise the need to enable areas like Barnsley to grow by providing the right framework, based on real, local economic areas. That is why we invited local businesses and civic leaders to establish their own local enterprise partnerships to help remove the barriers to local growth. The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of Government driving growth in places such as Barnsley, but there has to be a partnership. The Government have a critical role to play in setting the framework, but in a sense this Government’s approach is to enable and give the capacity to local areas to rebuild their economies themselves, with support from government. That is the right approach to take. This model is designed to give back to local communities a much greater say in their economic future, not least by bringing business and civic leaders together in a shared partnership.

The LEPs are leading the development of the 24 new enterprise zones, which will not only accelerate the creation of new business opportunities and jobs. The additional business rate revenue generated by enterprise zones will be retained locally to be spent across the whole area of an LEP, as it sees fit. We are working with LEPs that have a zone on additional options to suit local circumstances. We have agreed enhanced capital allowances for plant and machinery where there is a strong local focus on manufacturing, in areas such as Barnsley, for example, including for sites within the Sheffield city region enterprise zone. We are also working on tax-increment finance to boost the long-term viability of the area, as well as on support from UKTI for inward investment or trade opportunities. Even Barnsley town centre, which is not part of the enterprise zone, can share in the wider benefits from the nearby enterprise zone that I mentioned.

Barnsley is especially well placed to benefit from our approach, because we recognise its location and have agreed that it should be a full member of both the Leeds and Sheffield city region LEPs. Sheffield city region is, for example, focusing on growth in advanced manufacturing and technology. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the university of Sheffield was announced as one of seven partners in the Government’s first technology and innovation centres. This will focus on high-value manufacturing and includes partners of the calibre of Boeing and Rolls Royce. Sheffield city region is also looking to exploit the potential of creative, digital and low-carbon industries, which the hon. Lady mentioned, where there are real opportunities in Barnsley, such as the emerging eco-vision for the Dearne valley, which I understand is within the Sheffield enterprise zone.

The hon. Lady mentioned the feed-in tariffs court action that is under way. A genuine problem with the original design of the FIT scheme had to be resolved, but it is important that we do everything we can to promote the emergence of new technologies. The Government are already planning the green investment bank, which will help investment in renewable energies. There is, of course, also the green deal.

I appreciate that the Government are establishing the green investment bank, which could be located in South Yorkshire if they were to really think about helping our local economy. The fundamental underlying point is that we still need demand in the economy if the local enterprise partnership is to deliver the success that the Minister is outlining as possible with these new arrangements.

What will the Government do to stimulate the demand that will feed the development and growth of new businesses in Barnsley?

In particular, export-led growth. There are enormous opportunities for companies in Barnsley and elsewhere to benefit from opportunities that have not, in the past, been properly exploited.

The hon. Lady mentioned funding opportunities. The Government’s approach to local economic development also includes several new funding streams in addition to the enterprise zone programme, including the regional growth fund and the growing places fund.

The regional growth fund is focused on creating private sector jobs—the sort of jobs that the hon. Lady mentioned in her introduction—which are so important for the future of Barnsley, which has in part, following the loss of the coal mining jobs, been over-reliant on public sector jobs. The first two rounds of the fund are well under way, with two thirds of projects from round one started, and a third of all projects are under way.

I challenge the hon. Lady’s view about the extent to which the RGF is leveraging private money. With roughly £6 of private money being unlocked for every £1 of public money spent, the regional growth fund is now starting to have a real impact and is expected to generate 325,000 jobs. That is an incredibly important contribution to rebuilding the economy. A sum of £1 million has been conditionally offered to a bid from Fosters Bakery to enable it to expand on to a site that will also house food innovation and an incubation centre, aiding wider growth. Road Tankers Northern, based in Barnsley, is set to benefit from the Leeds city region advanced manufacturing regional growth fund package. Things are happening in Barnsley as a result of the regional growth fund.

In the autumn statement we announced an additional £l billion for the regional growth fund for England, extending it into 2014-15 to provide ongoing support to grow the private sector. Details of the third round of the scheme will be announced shortly. Last year we announced the £500 million growing places fund investment to unblock stalled local infrastructure projects and stimulate further private sector investment.

I am pleased that local enterprise partnership allocations have now been confirmed. Sheffield city region will receive £12.5 million under this fund and Leeds city region will receive £24.5 million, and Barnsley will have access to both funds. That is important if we are going to unlock the potential for growth in the area.

Local areas are also making decisions on how to use their allocation, including by matching with other funding to create larger investment pots. I understand that initial expressions of interest have been submitted in Sheffield city region, with decisions on which projects to support in March. In Leeds city region a fund prospectus will be launched in the next weeks and the first successful projects will be confirmed in May or June. These are important developments to help in the Barnsley area.

The hon. Lady mentioned access to finance. There have been real problems for small businesses accessing the funding that they need. Project Merlin has led to increased lending to SMEs in this financial year compared with the last financial year, which is important. The British Banking Association has introduced a system that allows small businesses to appeal against decisions to turn down loan applications. Quite a significant percentage of those appeals are succeeding. I encourage small businesses, if they are turned down, to use the appeal system to challenge the decision that has been taken.

The Government are also doing what they can, through the enterprise finance guarantee, to facilitate additional bank lending to viable small and medium-sized businesses that lacked the security to secure a normal commercial loan. To date the fund has helped 14,700 businesses, underwriting more than £1.4 billion-worth of loans. But more needs to be done. The hon. Lady is right. The Independent Commission on Banking committee set out in its report last year:

“Local banks can provide a better quality of service to customers and hence our push for new entrants to the sector.”

That is an important initiative. This approach is proving successful, with Metro, Virgin and Silicon Valley banks all having recently entered the sector. There needs to be more competition in banking.

The Government share the hon. Lady’s desire to see Barnsley flourish, along with the rest of the country, which is why we are going all-out to create a business environment that will give companies the confidence to invest and grow. Local communities are being freed from central control so that they can help determine their own economic future.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).