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Productivity (South-west)

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

Investment and skills are front and centre in our plans to raise productivity across the country, including in the south-west. The autumn statement announced a new £23 billion national productivity investment fund that will be targeted at four areas that are critical to improving productivity: housing; transport; digital communications; and research and development. We also announced in the autumn statement that the south-west will receive £191 million from the local growth fund to back local priorities and support new jobs and £19.5 million extra investment to bolster the area’s resilience to flooding.

I welcome the Chancellor’s words and appreciate that he is keen for funding to be granted and attached to infrastructure projects that will bring a positive economic effect. With that in mind, will he consider supporting road improvements on the Toneway-Creech Castle corridor that leads into Somerset’s county town of Taunton, which will unlock 3,000 housing units?

I understand that the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership bid for this scheme is part of its local growth fund submission; as I said, £191 million has been allocated to the south-west, and details of the individual LEP allocations will be announced in the near future. The Government are very supportive of using infrastructure to open up house building and employment opportunities, and from what she has said about this road, it sounds as though the project in question would fit very well with Government priorities.

As the Chancellor will know, Bristol is making a real contribution to productive growth, not just in the south-west, but across the country. But as the mayor of Bristol said in his response to the autumn statement,

“if the government wants a ‘watertight’ UK economy it needs to stop punching holes in local government’s hull.”

Will the Government commit to giving Bristol and cities like it the devolved powers, infrastructure investment and funding they need to deliver on productive growth locally?

The Government remain committed to the devolution agenda and, in particular, to supporting mayoral authorities, to ensure that economic growth and productivity are driven from the bottom up. We will continue to work with those authorities to make sure we deliver the funding available in the most effective way to get the result the national economy needs.

I very much welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to road, rail and broadband. Openreach should be broken away from BT to deliver proper competition, because in the hardest-to-reach areas for broadband in my constituency and across the west country, we need some greater players and greater competition.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying. He will know that there has been a long and heated debate about the best way of delivering our broadband infrastructure in the future, and Ofcom is at the heart of reviewing this issue. I shall continue to have meetings with Ofcom, and with representatives of BT and others, over the coming days, as will my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary.

The south-west’s productivity has drifted down since 2010 and, according to the House of Commons Library, the UK overall has seen the widest productivity gap with the G7 since 1991, when the data series began. What plans, if any, does the Chancellor have to pursue his predecessor’s so-called “Fixing the foundations” productivity plan? Or is that another failed policy that this Chancellor is trying quietly to jettison?

No, and if the hon. Gentleman looks at the document we published last Wednesday, he will see that it contained a specific reference to “Fixing the foundations”, which is the base document setting out the Government’s agenda for addressing productivity issues. Of course, the key announcement in last week’s autumn statement was an additional £23 billion of borrowing specifically targeted at the highest-return investment projects; this is designed to raise Britain’s productivity by raising the productivity performance of our regional cities, in particular, and our regions more generally, to that of London and the south-west.

It is six years late. The productivity gap has widened for both the south-west and the country, and so has the gap in earnings and wages. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the outlook for wages is “dreadful”, with workers likely to earn less in real terms in 2021 than they did in 2008, and with the biggest losers being lower-income families, with the poorest third likely to see incomes drop. So in tandem with action on the productivity crisis, what are the Chancellor’s plans for action on the wages crisis?

First, if the hon. Gentleman that if he looks at real household disposable incomes, he will see that the picture is rather brighter, and they present a much more real picture of what people in the economy are experiencing. He is right to say that real wages are a reflection of productivity performance, and the only way sustainably to raise real wages is to raise the productivity performance of this economy. So rather than whinging about whether something was done this year, last year or six years ago, and perhaps with a careful eye on the performance of the previous Labour Government in this area, he might care to welcome the announcement made last week as an appropriate initiative to try to raise the UK’s productivity performance, and raise real wages and living standards over the long term.