The Government are supporting economic growth across the whole country as a key part of our productivity agenda by investing in infrastructure and skills, and by developing our industrial strategy. At the autumn statement, I launched our northern powerhouse strategy and earlier this year set out our midlands engine strategy. We recently allocated a further £1.8 billion from the local growth fund and an initial tranche of £185 million of local transport funding across the English regions.
From Merseyside to Teesside, ports are a great northern success story. Will my right hon. Friend look into the potential for the creation of free ports throughout the United Kingdom? Free trade zones would increase trade, create manufacturing jobs and boost regional growth, which are all key ingredients of our future economic prosperity.
My hon. Friend has made the case for free ports, and the Government have heard that case very clearly. We will consider all options that have the potential to support our ambition to see Britain as a great global trading nation, but before making any decisions we shall need to consider carefully not only the advantages that free ports can deliver, but the costs and potential risks associated with them.
If towns and cities in our economy—including those in the north of England —are to flourish, we need banks and building societies that support them. Does the Chancellor agree that those banks and building societies should keep their branches open? Leeds Building Society has just announced that it will close its branch in Armley Town Street, which is in my constituency, following the closure of branches of HSBC and Yorkshire Bank in the last two years.
Of course we want there to be a viable branch banking network across the country, but we must recognise that the nature of banking is changing. More and more of us are using online digital banking, and that is bound to be reflected in the configuration of the branch networks that the banks operate.
As the entrepreneurial heart of England, Buckinghamshire provides an excellent bridge to the east midlands and beyond. Will my right hon. Friend look into how investment in Buckinghamshire can help to stimulate growth throughout the country, not just in London and the south-east?
I am sure you are delighted, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend has lighted on the key role of Buckinghamshire as a bridge between the north, the south, the east, the west and every other part of the country. I should be happy to receive, and I confidently predict that I will receive, my hon. Friend’s detailed submission on the case for greater infrastructure investment in Buckinghamshire.
As the article 50 notice letter set out very clearly, the Government are seeking to negotiate a deep and special partnership with the European Union, at the heart of which will be a comprehensive free trade agreement covering goods, services and networks. That will allow us to continue to work closely with the European Union after leaving the organisation.
The Government do carry out detailed analysis to inform their negotiating strategy, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want me to reveal the outcome of that analysis, which would be of great use to our negotiating partners on the other side. That is not the way to get the best deal for Britain in these negotiations.
My hon. Friend has made an important suggestion, and I will undertake to look at it carefully. No doubt an exercise will take place over the next few weeks that will involve our thinking about what commitments we want to make for the future, and I will take his question as a representation.
An important driver of economic growth, both inside and outside London and the south-east, is productivity. Notwithstanding the rosy picture painted by the Chancellor, the Financial Times’s chief economist says that our productivity performance is “calamitous” and that the disparity in performance has widened regionally. Who do we believe, a respected economist or a backtracking Chancellor?
I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints of my position. I have stood at this Dispatch Box on countless occasions and lamented the fact that Britain has a poor productivity record—worse than Germany’s, and worse than those of the United States, France and Italy—but simply lamenting that fact is not enough. What we must do is put together a plan for tackling it, and it will be a long—
If the right hon. Gentleman checks the records, he will discover that this problem has existed for 40 years. It would be better if we tried to tackle this challenge in a spirit of bipartisan recognition and if we both recognised that there is a real problem that we have to tackle by investment in infrastructure, by investment in skills and by actions to spread growth and prosperity across the country.
Yes, seven years.
Although the £6 billion investment for a new two-mile lower Thames crossing is welcome, how does such imbalanced infrastructure spending help to close the economic gap of regions outside London and the south-east? Does not that simply reaffirm the Government’s pathological incapacity to see much beyond the M25? I will be happy to buy the Chancellor a satnav if he wants to take the opportunity to use it.
I am not going to take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman on regional awareness, but perhaps he should speak to the Mayor of London, who has a view on infrastructure investment and what should drive it. The Government are clear that we need to spread infrastructure investment around the country in a way that will tackle the productivity challenge. One of the ways we will tackle it is by harvesting the benefits of our city regions in the west midlands, in the northern powerhouse and elsewhere, which evidence across the developed world has shown can be major drivers of productivity improvement. That is what we have to focus on.