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Economic Opportunities: South Wales and the South-west

Volume 628: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2017

1. What steps his Department is taking to foster economic opportunities between south Wales and the south-west. (900689)

I am keen to strengthen the relationship between south Wales and the south-west. After all, Bristol is the most productive city in England outside of London. Abolishing the Severn tolls will strengthen the links between communities and help to transform the joint economic prospects of south Wales and the south-west of England.

Will the Secretary of State be a strong voice in Cabinet not just for Wales, but for the regions of our country, especially for places such as—oh, I don’t know—Cornwall? Will he also make sure that the shared prosperity fund is distributed fairly and on the basis of genuine need?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question because his area, like large parts of Wales, benefits from the current European Union structural funds. The shared prosperity fund offers great prospects of a much more streamlined approach to supporting some of the most needy parts of the United Kingdom. I am determined to ensure that the shared prosperity fund is a much more efficient delivery system with fair distribution around the UK—to serve my hon. Friend’s region, as well as Wales.

What would have strengthened Wales’s economic development links was the electrification of the railway between Cardiff and Swansea, which the previous Tory Prime Minister described as “vital”. By scrapping that, have not this Tory Government once again let down Wales?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that advances in bimodal technology mean that electrifying the line between Cardiff and Swansea would not save passengers any journey time. In fact, there would be significant disruption and delay, adding costs to travellers and businesses alike without any time saving. The advances in bimodal trains mean that we can take the most modern fleet of trains further in west Wales than we would otherwise with solely an electrified railway.

The scrapping of the Severn tolls is a huge benefit to businesses across Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also of vast benefit to businesses in places such as Wiltshire, where HGV operators have been paying £20 a time to get across the Severn? All of a sudden, they will be able to do business in Wales much more profitably.

My hon. Friend has rightly recognised that scrapping the Severn tolls is a significant boost not only to the south Wales economy, but to the economy of the south-west of England. He welcomed it along with the South Wales chamber of commerce, Business West and many others. It seems that the only people who have not welcomed the scrapping of the Severn tolls are the Labour party and the Welsh Government.

Further to the Secretary of State’s first answer, will he give a categorical commitment that all areas in Wales that are in receipt of European structural funds will continue to be eligible in the near future?

The UK shared prosperity fund can do even more because we will not have the same restrictions that the European Commission puts on European structural funds. It hardly makes sense that some of the most deprived parts of Wales are excluded from the European structural funds map as it stands because of European rules. The UK shared prosperity fund allows us to introduce a much more efficient and responsive scheme.

One project that could provide significant economic opportunities on both sides of the Bristol channel is the provision of a regular ferry service between Ilfracombe in my constituency and south Wales. It has been considered by a commercial company. What support could the Wales Office give to that idea?

I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss the prospects. Like me, he recognises the major economic opportunities of binding the regions together. Between the south-west of England and the south Wales economy, we have one of the largest digital clusters and one of the best cyber-security clusters. We can do more to encourage economic growth, including the sorts of subject I have mentioned and tourism, which would benefit from the Severn crossing we have talked about.