Skip to main content

North Staffordshire Potteries Towns: Levelling Up

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2020

[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new covid system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones before they use them, using the cleaning materials provided, which should be disposed of as they leave the room. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system; please exit by the door on the left.

Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call lists. That applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. I remind Members that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s levelling-up agenda and post covid-19 economic recovery in North Staffordshire Potteries towns.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. Covid-19 has hit the world hard, particularly north Staffordshire. I want to thank all the health and care workers, who have done, and continue to do, so much to care for those who have fallen victim to covid, often at considerable personal risk. They have our enduring gratitude—our key worker heroes in the fight against covid-19. I also thank those who have been working throughout the pandemic, keeping vital services going. They are heroes, too. Teachers, lecturers and classroom assistants are keeping schools open, ensuring our children continue to be supported and to receive the education they need.

Coronavirus has impacted our economy, particularly sectors such as hospitality, as well as many supply chains, such as tableware manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent. We must look to the future and hope in confidence that we can defeat this virus and return to a path of economic growth, greater opportunity and increased prosperity. Stoke-on-Trent is on the up and we must keep it on the up, redoubling the efforts that were long overdue even before covid struck. With the incredible scientific progress on vaccines and more rapid testing, we live with hope that the post covid-19 era is just months away.

We know from the end of the first lockdown that Stoke-on-Trent was one of the quickest to return to normal footfall and sale levels, second only to Derby in the midlands. We want to see that again, as soon as it is safe to do so. We have seen one of the highest covid rates in November. Thankfully, it has now already started to reduce significantly, and is down by 21%. Hopefully, by continuing these efforts, we will be able to leave tier 3 very soon; we hope at the first review on 16 December.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city made up of six historic pottery towns, each of which has its own high street to revive and support in the months and years ahead. Similarly, across the whole of north Staffordshire, from the moorlands to Newcastle, myriad communities in towns and villages form a total catchment of nearly half a million people. I deliberately called today’s debate on the towns, because they all need levelling up as a whole area. I recognise that might sound challenging.

In July 2013, the BBC News website ran an article by Matt Lee, entitled, “Is Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘six towns mentality’ holding it back?”. My answer to that question, then and now, is firmly, “No”, but it is always good to remind the Government that Stoke-on-Trent is a city of six pottery towns. Although it is, of course, vital to have a strong city centre—something that the city centre business improvement district and other key partners are working hard to deliver—it is essential that the character of our historic pottery towns, of which people are rightly proud, does not disappear.

The six towns mentality that the BBC reported on with such curiosity in 2013 is not something we are ashamed of. Indeed, it partly resulted in the Labour administration that the BBC reported on at the time being swept from power, because of its blatant attempts to downgrade our towns to mere suburbs. All our towns across north Staffordshire play a key role in building a stronger post-covid recovery. I am particularly focused today on the two pottery towns in my constituency, Longton and Fenton, but I will start with cross-city issues that impact the whole of the Potteries.

While recovering from covid is important, unfortunately many of the challenges we face predate it. We are one of the most regionally imbalanced countries, and I am delighted that the Government have recognised the necessity of levelling up our country with the announcement last week of the £4 billion levelling-up fund. I assure the Minister that there is no greater case for investment than locally in Stoke-on-Trent.

Across Stoke-on-Trent, seven wards have been identified as left behind by the all-party group for “left behind” neighbourhoods and Local Trust, three of them in my constituency. Stoke-on-Trent now has the 12th highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods on multiple measures out of 317 council districts in England, up one place since 2015. We are not even level on a regional basis, let alone nationally. Health comparators put Stoke-on-Trent as worst in the region in terms of life expectancy and a number of other health indicators. Gross value added per head in Stoke-on-Trent trails behind the regional and national averages considerably. Earnings, likewise, are lower by some margin. Gross weekly pay for full-time workers in the city averages £501.20 whereas it is £550.80 across the west midlands and £587 nationally. As a recent levelling-up report by Onward showed, gross disposable household income declined between 1997 and 2018, but less so than in most other deprived areas because of gains in productivity.

One factor influencing wages is that levels of academic qualification in Stoke-on-Trent are significantly worse than in other parts of the country. It is vital that more is done to improve access and to push up aspirations. Only 22.5% of people in Stoke-on-Trent have a qualification of NVQ level 4 or above, lagging considerably behind the national average of 40.3%. This is despite an excellent higher education offer in north Staffordshire, including at the University of Keele and Staffordshire University. These are challenges we must overcome if we are to recover stronger and to truly level up.

While there are challenges, there is much potential for improvement. Prior to the pandemic, we had seen some of the strongest economic growth of any city in the UK, with high new business start-up rates and retention rates. We also have a strong focus on growth sectors where we have great potential to succeed owing to our natural strengths, including advanced manufacturing and creative and digital industries.

For advanced manufacturing, it is vital that the bid for wave 2 of the Strength in Places fund for midlands advanced ceramics is successful. It would develop an advanced ceramics centre in north Staffordshire to create the high-skilled jobs that we need. The bid is led by Lucideon in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and the Midlands Industrial Ceramics Group, a consortium that includes companies such as Mantec Technical Ceramics in Longton in my constituency. A commitment from UK Research and Innovation will help catalyse private investment and level up opportunities.

In digital, we have huge potential to strengthen and attract new-tech firms. We already have the largest number of students in gaming and computer sciences in the country at Staffordshire University. Massive investment in fibre broadband that is being plugged directly into homes and businesses as we speak will see Stoke-on-Trent become the first gigabit-connected city in the country. This is an exciting opportunity to attract digital and tech companies to locate in our area, bringing skilled and well-paid jobs.

The key factor will be continuing to improve educational standards, and we need to support all our schools to continue to improve. I strongly believe that a proposed wave 14 free school for my constituency is part of this improvement and needs to be granted the support of the Government. The Florence MacWilliams Academy, which is named after a local mathematician and coding pioneer of worldwide renown, will boost local ambition and help more local pupils embark on academic and technical careers.

For some across north Staffordshire, the barrier is literally an issue in being able to get to college or work. The public transport network is woefully inadequate. There is heavy dependence locally on the car, which accounts for about 80% of journeys. This car dependency to access work, skills and leisure opportunities comes despite 30% of the city’s population having no access at all to a private vehicle. For those with no car and few public transport options, dreams and ambitions are severely limited. Indeed, the A500/A50, which we call locally the D road, is a classic piece of urban splintering for those without a car. The strategic network operates at around 110% of capacity and resembles a car park, with poor reliability at peak times.

Sadly, this congestion is mirrored on a local road network that has lacked real investment for decades, with three parts of the network now under ministerial direction due to air quality breaches. We face the unthinkable reality of having to implement harsh measures to improve air quality, which threatens jobs and livelihoods, when the focus should instead be on improving public transport.

Congestion is the main reason identified by local bus operators for the decline in our public transport. Even before covid, over the past decade bus journeys declined locally by a third. The combination of road congestion, lack of connectivity and the poor reliability of local buses inhibits businesses and housing investment, a compounded barrier to employment for people who already struggle to access employment opportunities and housing. The lack of cross-city transport options, even where there are bus routes, means that passengers are required to use multiple services, with unreliable journey times and no guarantee of connection. In addition, despite growth in rail nationally, this modal shift has been held back locally by a lack of infrastructure, not least the closure of much of the local rail network under Beeching, including the Stoke to Leek line.

North Staffordshire has not seen a single station reopen since the Beeching axe. In part, this has been due to the methodology for prioritising infrastructure spend. While large cities have seen stations reopen since Beeching, in north Staffordshire local services have got worse. As part of the west coast upgrade in 2005, Etruria was removed altogether, and services to Wedgwood and Barlaston were suspended indefinitely, never to return. Local services have been sacrificed for the benefit of slightly improved fast inter-city services. Such was the legacy of a city in decline under the Blair and Brown Governments.

What is needed is a transport revolution: a step change in our relationship with the car, and a properly integrated public transport system. The Government must commit to our bid for the Transforming Cities fund. We also need investment from the Restoring Your Railway programme, and the delivery of levelling-up funding that enhances public transport. The Transforming Cities fund will be the start of a journey towards more effective local public transport systems across north Staffordshire, where we see bus prioritisation and better integration of bus and rail. Feeder services into a multi-modal hub at Stoke station will ensure the greatest return on the Government’s investment in bringing High Speed 2 to Stoke-on-Trent. Already, one of our plans for Meir station has been given Government backing as part of the Restoring Your Railway programme. We want to see the Stoke to Leek line advancing, too, as well as the restoration of services at Wedgwood and a study into the options for light rail and restoring Etruria.

It is vital to ensure that all communities are connected to economic opportunities, and now is the time to invest in transport infrastructure, level up connectivity and access opportunities. Improved local public transport would support wider development in the area, unlocking unviable sites for housing and economic regeneration. We are keen to embrace the Ministry’s housing targets, and a new round of the Housing Infrastructure fund would help us mitigate substantial brownfield sites that are currently uneconomic due to remediation costs. To be effective, any community infrastructure levy must reflect the varied nature of housing markets across the country.

I very much thank the Minister, and welcome the support being given by the Government to areas such as Stoke-on-Trent through last week’s announcement of a £100 million brownfield fund. Funding is essential to remediate sites and get development off the ground, particularly where values are challenging. We need to realise the growth and the economic successes witnessed through the hugely successful ceramic valley enterprise zone. That success has seen brownfield sites transformed, supporting businesses and jobs, and this needs to be echoed on our high streets and in our town centres.

However, there is a huge potential stumbling block to levelling up in many Government funding programmes, which is the 25% local contribution requirement, as well as the lack of resources at a council level to make schemes shovel-ready. My heart drops whenever I see local contribution levels I know we do not have the money for or will struggle to meet. Frequently, the city council resources relied upon to do this work will be limited to one or two officers. The council tax base is the second lowest in the country after Hull, and many resources were reprioritised over a decade ago to meet the costs of social care.

We cannot level ourselves up, and I ask the Government to please look again at the implications of hefty local contribution levels and the lack of revenue support for left-behind areas. The most disadvantaged areas need a new formula where support is provided to make schemes shovel-ready and the expected local contribution is reduced or waived, otherwise there will be no point in bidding for levelling-up programmes in the first place. The National Audit Office has already made this point in relation to certain bus funds that required a substantial local contribution and therefore did not reach the communities that needed them most.

In Stoke-on-Trent South, Fenton is undergoing several improvements, with new housing and a better public realm in the historic Albert Square. The city council has invested £28.7 million in Fenton, bringing forward derelict brownfield sites for new housing and restoring the iconic square.

I am delighted that the Cultural Recovery fund was able to offer support to Fenton town hall. Significant work is being done to bring the important historic building back into use following a huge local campaign by the community. It now houses a whole range of businesses and organisations that are helping to bring life back into Fenton. Restoke, a local performing arts organisation, is bidding for Arts Council funding to bring the historic town hall ballroom back into use for the creative enjoyment of the whole community and to bring together people from all backgrounds. It is essential that we secure this funding.

I am keen to see the station reopen at Fenton Manor, with the reopening of the Stoke to Leek line. Fenton is sometimes called the forgotten town, not least because Arnold Bennett excluded it from his “Stories from the Five Towns”. I will continue to ensure that Fenton gets the attention it deserves—lobbying to get Fenton Manor station reopened is part of that.

In Longton, which has the biggest high street in my constituency and the second largest in Stoke-on-Trent, significant support is needed to get the town thriving again. Longton has a proud history as a centre of fine china within the Potteries, and there has been a recent renaissance in ceramic design and manufacture locally, especially the recent successful rejuvenation of Duchess China 1888.

However, Longton is also an area of multiple deprivation and the conservation area is rated very bad on the at-risk register. Many of the industries the town once relied on have closed or moved, and competition from out-of-town and online has hit the high street very hard. Even pre-covid, Longton suffered from very high vacancy levels—double the national average—and many properties are in a very poor state of repair. Thankfully, Longton town hall was saved by the community from the threat of demolition in the mid-1980s and has recently seen investment by the city council and now has a sustainable future as a local centre and hireable space. The upper floor will also receive funding through the Getting Building fund to be converted into a shared workspace.

Longton as a whole has not yet received the level of attention needed to restore it to its former glory, yet its potential for growth as an authentic and liveable town is obvious, even after decades of decline. In 2017, we secured a pioneering heritage action zone from Historic England to cover Longton and the bottle ovens of the Potteries. While this has started to make progress, the original HAZ seems to have been slightly eclipsed by the later high street HAZs across the country in getting the job of town centre restoration done.

The Longton HAZ needs a new boost of investment and the city council has secured Partnership Schemes in Conservation Areas funding totalling £900,000, in partnership with Historic England and property owners. This is a positive step, but greater ambition for securing investment must deliver a much greater scale of change. It was a huge disappointment when we missed out previously on high street and town funding. We want to attract new residential and economic uses, whether digital and tech firms or creative studios. Attracting these new uses can provide a strong future for Longton and help better sustain the retail offer.

There is huge potential to convert empty high street space, with converted historic buildings providing quirky spaces in which to live and work, but incentives are needed for these conversions to happen when costs to owners often outweigh the return. Similarly, brownfield town centre and former factory sites would be great spaces for new commercial and residential use, but we need support to address the deliverability challenges.

Like in Fenton, where public realm work has been delivered, we need to invest in making the physical environment in Longton more appealing, which would boost footfall and better stitch the town together. Gladstone is the finest single site of bottle ovens that survives in the UK and is the greatest driver of tourism footfall in Longton. Covid has hit museums very hard indeed, and it is vital that significant community assets should be supported and that our bid for covid emergency funding should succeed. It is by preserving our unique industrial heritage that we will continue to attract today’s leading international ceramicists—practitioners who could base themselves anywhere in the world—to Stoke-on-Trent as the authentic world capital of ceramics.

I hope we will see a wider deal to level up Longton—a deal that will help to integrate the town centre better, with investment in public spaces and the bringing back into use of empty historic buildings. Together, that will encourage footfall, helping to get our fantastic market traders and retailers back on track. Improvements to Longton could be part of a wider towns deal, through the levelling-up fund, that invests in improvements for a number of our towns across north Staffordshire that need support. Properly restored, Longton will attract new residents, visitors, shoppers and businesses, as the finest preserved example of a Potteries town, with the authentic skyline of chimneys and bottle ovens.

We continue to face more short-term sacrifices to control the pandemic, and work to get Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire out of tier 3. We should be under no illusions about the huge hits to our economy and mental health. I firmly believe in delivering funding now for projects that will give the Potteries a brighter future and will mean that we can recover to be stronger than before. That involves some tough asks of Government—that they deliver on their promise to level up opportunities across the entire country. The Government must invest in the areas that need it most, and not just cement the position of those that already have. There is so much optimism for the future, and after decades in which we have been ignored last week’s spending statement has renewed our hope that Stoke-on-Trent’s time has finally come.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I think it is the first time that you have chaired a sitting I have taken part in, so it is an honour. It is also an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) who secured this important debate.

As can be seen from the level of attendance by Members representing north Staffordshire constituencies, we care about it desperately. We are also extremely pleased that, despite the billing on the call list, the Minister is also a Staffordshire MP. It is wonderful to see him in his place, and it will be a lot easier for us to explain many of the things we will say about north Staffordshire. Despite not being a north Staffordshire MP he will, I know, appreciate as a Staffordshire MP the many unique aspects of the life of north Staffordshire.

I am not being too much of a fraud, but I do not represent a pottery town if they are truly defined as Arnold Bennett defined them, as the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent. However, I represent the town that he called Axe, which is Leek in Staffordshire Moorlands, and the town of Biddulph and numerous villages. It was our villages and towns that helped the Potteries to succeed. The flint mill in Cheddleton, the village where I was born, was where the flint was ground before being taken on the canal. The canals were created by James Brindley who lived in the Staffordshire moorlands and created the Rudyard lake that Rudyard Kipling was named after, and which fed the canals. Those canals enabled the flint to be taken from the Staffordshire moorlands to Stoke-on-Trent where, in Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Hanley, Stoke and Tunstall—I got all six—it was used in making the most fantastic pottery.

I had the great pleasure and privilege—using my birthday present from March, which I could do only at October half term because of the various restrictions of the past few months—of visiting World of Wedgwood and enjoying afternoon tea. I saw the fantastic museum setting out the Potteries and how they came about. Anyone visiting the museum will see just what a powerhouse north Staffordshire was. It was at the forefront of developments in science, technology and manufacturing that transformed the way pottery is manufactured around the world; and it still manufactures the very best pottery today.

This debate is about the levelling-up and post-covid-19 economic agendas. We cannot start that debate without recognising that we have to get through covid first. I have great fears about the economy that will be left for us to recover post-covid. I received more messages last weekend from businesses in my constituency that are concerned about the impact of the measures that are currently being debated in the main Chamber. I have incredible sympathy for those businesses, with what they are going through.

It is a shame that we, as Members of Parliament, are presented with the Hobson’s choice of voting for restrictions. In many cases, they are necessary to save lives—to be clear, north Staffordshire does need to be in tier 3 at the moment, as our hospital desperately needs to get on a sustainable footing before we can move out of those restrictions—but it is a shame that the only option presented to us by the Government is to vote for the measures, on which we will not get another say for a couple of months. I have great reservations about some of the things included in those measures.

I think about the businesses that have been in touch with me, particularly hospitality businesses. Hospitality is such an important part of the community. In fact, there was a time when Leek, which I referred to earlier as Axe, had more pubs per head of population than anywhere else locally, and possibly across the country—it had a phenomenal number of pubs. They are all drinkers’ pubs—the wet pubs we talk about—not food pubs. They will be grateful for what the Prime Minister said about support, but £1,000 will simply not get those businesses through if they cannot reopen and start serving. To be clear, what they want is to trade, serve their customers and make money. They do not want Government handouts; they want to be able to work and trade. I urge the Government to think really carefully about how we can help support those businesses, because there is no point in us having these discussions if we have no economy to come back to.

On Saturday, I visited Heaton House Farm, which I have mentioned in other debates. As a dedicated wedding venue, it is suffering incredibly. It could not benefit from the eat out to help out scheme, and it cannot benefit from VAT cuts because it has no turnover on which to have one. I went because the farm is selling Christmas trees—Mick Heath, who runs Heaton House Farm, is very resourceful and a great seller of Christmas trees. He provides trees for the whole of Leek and the town centre. He pointed out to me that he had to spend his own money to buy those Christmas trees in November, but when he put the order in, he did not know whether he would actually be allowed to sell them.

Business needs certainty and to know what is coming. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who is not only a savvy and experienced Minister, but experienced in the world of business, knows that business needs certainty and, for example, more than 24 hours’ notice to be able to connect the beer to the pumps to sell it the following day. They need time and certainty. Will the Government think carefully about that?

To go back to levelling up and post-covid, one of the most critical things for north Staffordshire is transport, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South touched on. The Staffordshire Moorlands constituency—I have to be clear, because it is not the same as Staffordshire Moorlands District Council—is one of the very few in England in which there is no mainline railway station and no dual carriageway. We are home, however, to one of the UK’s biggest tourist attractions in Alton Towers. We desperately need alternative forms of transport.

Just pointing out that there is no railway station and no dual carriageway indicates the kind of roads that we are dealing with. In fact, we are saddened to be home to some of the most dangerous roads in the country in terms of fatalities and accidents, which feature regularly in the top 10—particularly the road from Leek to Buxton, the A53. We desperately need some alternative transport. 

We have made a bid to the Restoring Your Railway fund and the Minister will know from his ministerial experience how important such matters are. I beg him to work with us to help convince the Department for Transport that it is a worthwhile investment to reopen the train line between Stoke-on-Trent and Leek. It would make an incredible difference to the lives of so many people. It would enable us to get visitors in—we rely on tourism. It would enable us to get visitors into the moorlands in a much more environmentally friendly way. It would make journey times better for all, including for those who have to commute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South talked about the dependency on cars in the area. We do not have buses. We simply have to rely on our own cars to get about, and it can take an hour and a half to two hours at times to go just 12 miles between Leek and Stoke-on-Trent, so we really need alternatives. We need money in buses. We need to make sure our villages are connected, and the train line would make an incredible difference.

My hon. Friend touched on skills. As the Minister will know, Staffordshire has been historically underfunded in education. It is one of the worst-funded authorities in the country, sitting at, I think, the third worst at the moment in per head funding—I stand to be corrected on that. Staffordshire desperately needs more money per pupil to be able to compete and to invest in skills. I know I am preaching to the converted in the Minister on that topic, but we need to see investment in skills, and in the right skills, so that we can make sure that our young people are working in the industries of the future.

Broadband has already been discussed. All connectivity is an issue in a constituency where a third of its geographical area sits within a national park: the Peak District national park. We are always going to have problems with making sure that there is connectivity, but proper investment is needed.

I had a really interesting conversation last week with Hollinsclough Church of England Academy, one of the schools in one of the most isolated villages in my constituency. It is trying to find some way of getting fibre broadband to the premises in Hollinsclough, but the current estimated cost is £63,000, which is simply unaffordable for the school. Without proper fibre broadband to the premises, the school cannot serve its community. It serves a wide community, because it offers flexi-learning and deals with children who find it harder to be in more mainstream education. It is a very nurturing, loving village school that enables children through flexi-learning, in a way that works for them.

I also feel passionately that another way we could help north Staffordshire level up is through culture. Stoke-on-Trent bid to be the 2021 city of culture—the bid was won by Coventry, and well done to Coventry. I was the Culture Secretary at the time and had to recuse myself from all the decisions, because everyone could see quite clearly that if Stoke-on-Trent won, my constituency would do very well out of it.

The bid that came in was excellent. Stoke-on-Trent worked with neighbouring authorities to come up with a really innovative, diverse and unusual bid. It showed the value that culture can have. We are talking about the Potteries—the cultural history in the area is absolutely incredible. Support could be given through a cultural investment fund, where local cultural institutions could get bid for support to enable them to invest in capital or skills—something that would enable them to really work.

Culture is not a “nice to have”—it is essential. If we want businesses to invest in an area, they are only going to put their business, their headquarters or their factory there if their employees have something to do when they leave work. Those employees want cultural activities when they leave work, and sporting activities—they want to be able to participate in those things that make us happy.

We have the wonderful New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme. This will be the first Christmas for a long time that I will not be able to go to the Christmas play at the New Vic—we all know and understand why. It is a fantastic institution. It benefited from some funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and was grateful for that. We need to see that and other cultural institutions thrive.

I have talked about tourism, which is such an important part of the constituency, and I have a plea from Alton Towers, my biggest employer, which is suffering, having lost an incredible amount of the season—particularly the school trips, which are so important for any theme park. They fill the park during the week outside the school holidays, which is traditionally when we all visit such things with our children. The school trips are during the week when everyone else is at work, and the theme parks have lost that. The VAT cut was very helpful, but they need that to be extended. We cannot just assume that we will go back next year, hope there is a vaccine in place and hope we can have some normality and that Alton Towers will just thrive. It needs support and the VAT cut made an incredible difference.

I have two final points. The first is working with others. We are very proud of our local authority structures in Staffordshire, our two-tier system in the county and our unitary in Stoke-on-Trent, and we do not want that to change in any way. We want to ensure that decisions are taken at the right local level, but that does not mean that we cannot all work together. That does not mean just working together in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, but working across those counties that share very similar economic challenges to us—the A50 corridor.

The A50, for anyone who is unfamiliar with it—some of us use it more often than others—runs from East Midlands airport across Derbyshire and Staffordshire and into the A500, joining the M6 at either Stoke-on-Trent or Keele. It is an incredibly important road, because along that route we start with the East Midlands airport junction with the M1 and we come to things such as Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Toyota. We then come to Burton, with its historic brewing industry. Then we have JCB, Stoke-on-Trent with the historic Potteries, and areas such as mine that are more rural. Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire all have that rural aspect to them, as well as a unitary authority in the middle of the county.

We have fantastic universities, from Keele and Staffordshire to Derby and on to Nottingham and even Leicester; we could extend it beyond that. I know there is work being done to see what more can be done to help that Mercian stretch of the of the country to work together and get some real benefits—not just road, but rail, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will care about.

However, my final point is that in order to do that, we are going to need help with how the Treasury calculates value for money. I know the Chancellor has said he is looking at the Treasury formula; can my right hon. Friend the Minister put any pressure on him to ensure that for counties such as Staffordshire—in particular north Staffordshire, although I know he will want to put pressure on for the Tamworth area of Staffordshire as well—we can have a funding formula that works, so that investment can be made?

On the face of it, looking at the cost-benefit analysis compared with what might be the same spend in a city—perhaps even in Liverpool, Mr Dowd—it may well appear that spending that money in my constituency is not such good value for money, but it will make such an incredible difference to the people who live in Staffordshire Moorlands and north Staffordshire. If the Government are genuine about levelling up, they must ensure that areas such as north Staffordshire really see the benefit of their fantastic policies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important and timely debate. It is great to see such a united and robust representation from my constituency neighbours, friends and colleagues here from the Potteries towns of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire.

Stoke-on-Trent has great ambitions; the city is so much more than its history, yet it is undeniable that the potters of Stoke-on-Trent are our city’s beating heart and have been for more than 250 years. The pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent accounts for a significant element of our city’s economic output. Our renowned ceramics can be found all over the world. However, none of that would be possible without the 8,700 employees working in the ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent.

We all know that, sadly, during the pandemic, hospitality, tourism and non-essential retail have been really badly hit. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have a heavy reliance on manufacturing and technical industries, so we entered the pandemic in a weaker position than parts of the UK with industries and services that are more adaptable to the new requirements of working from home and social distancing. With many manufacturers in the Potteries using heavy machinery as part of line production, it is a tall order to require them to operate from home, or with significantly reduced staff in order to abide by social distancing. Because of the nature of our workforce, we have had a higher redundancy rate generally in the west midlands—about 16% between July and September—compared with the national average of 11.3%.

The stark reality of the situation facing us is that between March and October this year, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Stoke-on-Trent Central increased by more than 2,000 to roughly 5,000 people, from 4.7% to 8.5% of residents of working age. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I committed to a renewed focus on the economy and jobs in Stoke-on-Trent Central. That means investing time, resources and finances in skills—not just building on and expanding from our industrial heritage but looking to the jobs of the future, which will require new skills. Only 25% of adults in Stoke-on-Trent have qualifications above A-level, compared with a national average of 40.3%, which is why I welcome the Government’s investment in further education colleges and the commitment of £2.5 billion for a national skills fund to improve adult skills. However, more must be done to equip our workforce to face the challenges of a competitive and evolving economy.

The city-wide roll-out of full fibre across Stoke-on-Trent will have enormous advantages for our workforce. There are clear economic benefits associated with network build, such as the positioning of our city to gain early mover advantage in achieving 5G coverage. I will leave it to my colleagues to speak about Silicon Stoke and 5G in more detail. Further Government investment, such as the £250,000 received by Stoke on Trent College for its creative industries project, and a further £120,000 for a digital and construction skills project, are hugely welcome in our city. These projects alone will directly create 2,440 jobs and safeguard another 110, with 440 construction jobs also set to be created. To sustain this economic advantage, I will work with the Government and the city council to support a full fibre academy, in partnership with Stoke on Trent College and our secondary schools. It will train young people wishing to get involved in the field, giving them installation skills and hands-on field experience.

As our focus turns to creating higher-skilled, higher-paid employment in higher-value industries, post-industrial communities such as Stoke-on-Trent will need more support from the Government to help nurture and develop our large community of advanced manufacturing businesses, digital specialists, agritech companies and more. That is why I have lobbied relentlessly for the project backed by a major consortium of manufacturers, universities and research institutes to establish an advanced ceramics campus in Stoke-on-Trent, to encourage the fusion of education, research and public sector innovation with leading private sector partners such as Lucideon.

I am proud of our local businesses and how they have stepped up during recent difficult months. Businesses such as the Slamwich Club in Hanley, which recently won an award in the Staffordshire chamber of commerce business awards, embody the truly inspiring resilience of our city. Having been required to close the doors of the sandwich shop in March, Nicole and Steph, owners of the Slamwich Club, not only pivoted their entire offer to focus on food delivery services but decided to do so while leading the charge on the green revolution in our city, opting to use e-bikes to deliver their products across Stoke. It is precisely that innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that makes Stoke-on-Trent Central the perfect place to invest in and to be considered for allocations of funding for green technologies, such as green vehicle charging infrastructure, e-bike rental schemes and carbon capture technologies.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to providing £275 million of support for the installation of home and workplace charge points for electric vehicles, and £582 million for the plug-in car grant, both of which will help make it more affordable to own and drive an electric vehicle. Those are welcome investments in new technologies, which will ultimately consign our current air pollution problems to the past. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) has done, that Stoke-on-Trent needs a transport revolution that will focus on improving our air quality while also supporting the city’s continued economic growth. To do that, we absolutely have to secure the £29 million investment from the Transforming Cities fund.

Bus use in Stoke-on-Trent has fallen by a third in 10 years. To reverse the decline, it is vital that we receive the tens of millions of pounds of investment promised in the Red Book to transform the city’s relationship with non-car transport. We cannot allow the absence of reliable public transport to damage our local economy and risk jobs. With my fellow Stoke-on-Trent colleagues, I have repeatedly made that point to the Government. Delivering the Transforming Cities fund deal is not only extremely important for providing better and more sustainable public transport in Stoke-on-Trent, but it is integral to supporting our local economy in the recovery from covid-19. I understand that a final decision will come shortly, so we all look forward to what we hope will be good news.

In Stoke-on-Trent, the legacy of our industrial heritage provides significant scope to create employment through the redevelopment of our city’s abundant brownfield sites. I want to see the heart of Hanley and Stoke reinvigorated with quality homes built with good-sized gardens, electric charging points, great connectivity and space for home working, as well as commercial developments that reflect the changing way we will operate our businesses post-covid. However, as the Minister is aware, because of the city’s status outside the West Midlands Combined Authority, we did not qualify for the £400 million of brownfield funding in July. That was hugely disappointing, because we have shown that with remediation support, such sites are an excellent opportunity for thousands of new homes, including Help to Buy homes. There is also massive potential for commercial investment on legacy land, as we have seen at both Festival Park, which is a former steelworks, and the Ceramic Valley enterprise zone. Our city is in the best position for brownfield regeneration with green space preservation. I hope the Minister will take into consideration Stoke-on-Trent’s unique situation during the bid process for the next round of funding.

Another challenge that we faced in Stoke-on-Trent was the definition of eligibility in applying for the Towns fund deal. We are a city of six towns, each of which has its own challenges, and yet it will be as one city that we grow and prosper. That requires significant work to redesign elements of the city, taking a holistic view. I ask the Minister to allow for a Stoke deal featuring three of our towns—Hanley, Longton and Tunstall—and to recognise the importance of investment in our towns in the future vision of levelling up our city as a whole.

Levelling up was always going to be a difficult challenge, and the unfortunate reality is that the pandemic has made it even harder. It has shone a light on what is so important by highlighting the inequalities that we all seek to tackle. Our city has a big heart and great people who care about each other and the future of our young people. In conclusion, I want to put in a plea for investment in our people—in the charity, voluntary and community sector and public services—who work with those who are furthest away from the workplace to ensure that no one is left behind in our mission to level up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. As my colleagues have done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important debate. I begin, as he did, by praising everybody across north Staffordshire and in my constituency for their role in helping us to combat this pandemic. I praise the health and care workers, the leadership in the various hospitals and all the key workers helping us get through this period. I particularly want to praise the scientists for the scientific progress that we have made. The news about the vaccine is fantastic.

The Prime Minister visited a vaccine manufacturer in Wrexham yesterday. I am afraid I beat him to it, because I visited Cobra Biologics at Keele science park on 30 April, where I saw the first of the batch of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine being generated before it had even got into the bioreactor—a really small reactor with some of the first of that viral vector vaccine.

That example from Keele shows what we can do to help levelling up. The science and innovation park there and the investment that we are putting into Keele University are making a huge difference to my constituency. That is not spread across all of my constituency yet, and I will talk about that as I move through this speech, but I would just like to praise the work that all the scientists have done in getting us to the point at which we really have some hope. I think the fact that we now have hope should inform our votes later today in the House about how we combat the next few months. I think that it makes the case for continuing with restrictions, but I will speak more about that later.

I also echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) said about the need for more support. I will make that case to my right hon. Friend the Minister here and I know that he will speak to his Treasury colleagues and others about that.

The market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, as I said in my maiden speech, is also full of mining villages, and it is only because of those mining villages and the quality of the coal that they produced that these pottery towns are where they are at all. That is why they sprang up—because of the quality of the coal that was mined from the North Staffordshire coalfield. We do not actually have potteries ourselves; we do not have pottery kilns in Newcastle-under-Lyme, but we very much feel part of the wider north Staffordshire area.

We have a strong sense of identity and community across the area. I work incredibly well with all four of my colleagues in this debate. I will also point out that there is a friendly rivalry between Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent in particular, and there is a desire to maintain our own identities in the way that my right hon. Friend described. We want to work together. We have worked together. We are working together on covid; the directors of public health speak together about that. But we are very firm about our own identities.

We are the loyal and ancient borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. We have been sending people to this place for far longer than Stoke-on-Trent has done, and long may that continue—but I do not wish to spend the debate winding up my colleagues, because my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is speaking next and I fear that he may get his own back.

If I may, I will reminisce for a minute, with apologies to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah). A year ago, we were out on the doorsteps in the election campaign, and I do not know about my colleagues in the other seats that we gained, but it was around that time that people were firmly coming over to us. In the early part of the election campaign, people were waiting and seeing, but as we moved to the last couple of weeks, people were making up their minds, and there were reasons why people voted for us in north Staffordshire last year. There were obviously the reasons around Brexit and the reasons around the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but the third thing that I heard on the doorstep a lot was that people really bought into what we were saying about the need to revitalise market towns, mining villages and places that had felt left behind.

Newcastle is incredibly proud of its market, and people would repeatedly say, “The town is not what it was.” Covid has exacerbated the retail issues in the town centre, and that is why I am so grateful that we were included in the Future High Streets programme. There are certain key elements of the bid that is currently with the Minister or with the Ministry. I am really keen that we hear back soon, because the last I heard was that it would be the last week of November and my watch informs me that today is 1 December. We need to find out how we are getting on with that Future High Streets bid, but the redevelopment of the long-vacant Ryecroft site in the centre of town will be a huge step forward for us. At the moment, that is being used as a testing centre, which is actually a particularly innovative use of the space, but it has otherwise been for too long an eyesore in the centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme. It will be used for a mix of employment and residential uses. There will be a new multi-storey car park, so we can knock down the Midway one, which is not fit for purpose. There will be more public space. There will be more direct pedestrian and cycle connections to residential areas north of the town centre. We will have linked plazas, we will have public spaces and there will be ways to complement the improving offer from the street market by creating a community events space in the heart of the town that speaks to the cultural aspect.

Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has worked hard to develop the bid. It is ambitious and forward thinking, and it will help us to create the vibrant town centre that my constituents are desperate to see. This funding bid is a real opportunity for Newcastle. I really hope that we secure it, and that we hear very soon from the Ministry about where that is going.

I also look forward to the submission of our town deal bid. I should draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a member of the town deal board for Newcastle-under-Lyme. We have another meeting on Thursday. That is another reason why we would like to know about the Future High Streets submission—so that we can build on that in our town deal submission. I have been contributing to the development of that bid. It has been very ably chaired by Trevor McMillan, vice-chancellor of Keele University. It will also bring real change to the town centre—areas that were not covered by the Future High Streets bid. There will be a new skills and enterprise centre in Lancaster Buildings, the iconic buildings in the centre, where Ironmarket meets High Street in Newcastle. For too long they have been empty because of, frankly, overly high business rates. The reason why I could not put my office—my shop—there, where I wanted to, was because the business rates were too high, so I had to go a little bit further afield where the small business rate relief applied in full. We need to look at small business rate relief when we look at high streets.

There is going to be a repurposing of the former Zanzibar nightclub, which pre-dates my time in nightclubs, I am afraid. It is going to be used for mixed use and social housing. There is going to be more connectivity with a town-centre wi-fi and there is also going to be a focus on disadvantaged former mining villages, especially Knutton. We need to put the heart back into Knutton, and Chesterton, and that is what we are proposing to do. That is what levelling up from the public sector is about.

This is not just about the public sector, however. I am struck by how hard the town centre has been hit by covid. First, in the retail element, covid has probably accelerated things that were already there. In recent months, we have lost lots of shops and restaurants, including Laura Ashley, Dorothy Perkins, Edinburgh Woollen Mill and Pizza Hut. Some of them were probably in a bad way before covid, and that has been accelerated. We need to look at repurposing, and I know the Ministry is making it easier to turn former shops into residential or commercial use.

This is also about the hospitality sector. In Newcastle-under-Lyme we have purple flag status, which recognises the quality of our early evening and night-time economy: the pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafés. We have many entrepreneurs investing in our town and bringing jobs to our area, and they are struggling. Levelling up is not just a public-sector activity. I was on a call yesterday with Mr Leon Burton, the chief executive of the Staffordshire and Cheshire Leisure Group. He runs a place called the Milehouse, which is up in Cross Heath—again, an area that really needs levelling up. His business invested £700,000 in making the Milehouse a desirable location, in a spot that used not to be so desirable. He feels that we have not gone far enough in our support for hospitality, and I have to say that I agree. I welcome what the Prime Minister said today about giving wet pubs £1,000. The Milehouse is getting £2,000 a month in grants, but it is spending £1,620 on national insurance contributions and pension contributions, so Mr Burton is getting a net £380 a month to cover everything, including his rent. He makes the reasonable point that he is not clear how much longer he can survive like that. He has £100,000 of VAT debt, and I assume—I make this plea now—that we will roll over the deferrals on that. However, we need to find a way to make sure that people from the private sector who have invested and are helping to level up are not left behind.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the VAT cut on hospitality does not apply to alcohol, so businesses that are able to open are struggling. If they are open, their fixed costs are the same whether single households or multiple households are allowed to visit, and when they are closed, they have fixed costs that they have to cover. We need to make sure they are there when we get through this, and they need support.

As usual, my right hon. Friend is right. We need to find a proportionate measure. There are lots and lots of hard choices; the pandemic has meant choosing between one bad option and another throughout. I do not envy the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary the choices they have had to make, and I will be supporting the Government today. I will not get to give my speech in the main Chamber, because I am No. 105 on the call list and I think they have reached about No. 30, so I will make that point now.

I recognise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer also has hard choices to make. It is not as simple as saying that we should give everybody a turnover and make them whole, because that is taxpayers’ money, too, and we need to be realistic about how we use it. However, the support has to be proportionate to the damage that those places are suffering.

I will briefly talk about a couple of other areas in which we could level up. I want to hear more from the Minister, when he sums up, about what the new £4 billion levelling-up fund will do. I welcome that, and I would like it to be extended to local areas. I do not know what “local areas” means in the guidance. Does it go down as low as parish or town councils? I spoke to Audley Rotary Club last week. Audley is a mining village and it is not included in the Future High Streets fund because it is not part of the town centre, but the mining villages further out, such as Audley and Bignall End, need levelling up, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) mentioned the potential 5G pilot, and I want to put a word in for that. All 12 Staffordshire MPs wrote to the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about that. Most of all, I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South about public transport. Newcastle-under-Lyme is one of the largest towns in the country without a railway station of its own. We would like a lot more to be done about buses, as we said in this place at the start of this year in my first ever Westminster Hall debate.

In the longer term, we would love to put a metro proposition together, and we would like some help with that from either the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government or the Department for Transport. Too many local authorities that need levelling up do not have the experience necessary to put the bids together, because they have not had this funding for years. We need help so that we can put the best-quality bids together and get the levelling up that our communities deserve.

I want to briefly mention culture. Newcastle-under-Lyme is proud of its culture and history. We are the birthplace of Philip Astley, the founder of the modern circus, and hopefully our town deal will do some work around that. The New Vic, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central was kind enough to mention, had a fantastic restoration during covid, which turned out to be exceptionally well timed. I went along to the relaunch event, “Ghostlight”, which was socially distanced and very good, although I have so much sympathy for the theatre, which cannot put on its Christmas performance this year.

I had better wrap up, otherwise I will be talking my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North out of this debate altogether. Thank you very much, Mr Dowd, for letting me make these points about the importance of levelling up for north Staffordshire and all our communities.

Before I call Jonathan Gullis, may I ask you to finish by 3.38 pm if possible, to give the Minister, the Opposition spokesperson and Mr Brereton an opportunity to respond briefly?

I will do my best to rattle through my long list of asks, although I am sure I will be repeating many of the same messages of my colleagues across north Staffordshire.

I represent the fine towns of Burslem and Tunstall, two of the original six in the Potteries, but ultimately I am unique in this debate, because my constituency also covers the town of Kidsgrove and the village of Talke, which are in the Staffordshire county area. I therefore understand the challenges and the difficulties, but also the nuances between the county of Staffordshire and the city of Stoke-on-Trent. I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing this important debate.

It is quite clear that the Government have to take risks, and that means looking at areas such as Stoke-on-Trent. Yes, we will not get the massive returns on our buck that we would in parts of the south-east and London, but ultimately we will be substantially changing and improving the quality of people’s lives in those areas, and it is about time we finally got a fair share of funding. I totally agree that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place in making decisions on covid. I have every sympathy with the businesses across Stoke-on-Trent, north Kidsgrove and Talke, but when we see the Royal Stoke having to go to level 4 for critical care and north Staffordshire having among the highest numbers of covid cases per 100,000 in the country, then ultimately it is only proper that I back the Government to ensure that the tier restrictions remain in place for now. However, I will obviously be pushing for tier 2 at the earliest opportunity that arises.

I suppose the key thing would be education, as my hon. Friend has already mentioned. Stoke-on-Trent is in the bottom 20% for take-up at levels 3 and 4. We have some of the worst results, in terms of national comparisons, for GCSE passes in English and maths, and when we look at the destinations of our students, we see very few going on to higher education or quality apprenticeships. We therefore need a proper free school programme, not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency in wave 14, but a wave 15 announcement, to enable my constituency to get a disruptor free school, shake things up and ensure the Michaela-style education that I have signed up to and firmly believe in: high standards leading to high achievement.

We also need major investment in ceramics, through the Advanced Ceramics Campus, which was mentioned in the wave 2 Strength in Places bid, which is being led by Lucideon. That can bring a huge economic drive back to Stoke-on-Trent and put us back on the map, not just nationally but globally, in terms of ceramics. Let us not forget that those aeroplanes would not fly if not for the ceramics sprayed on the internal combustion engines. Nor should we forget the ceramics that we all have in our mobile phones or the ceramics being used in healthcare today, which can help the health service get to net zero.

However, Churchill China, Steelite and Burleigh—these great companies of ceramic tableware; these giants of the world—need our help at this time, because they are reliant on hospitality and are part of the supply chain in the sector. While they have been grateful for the furlough scheme, which has certainly meant that they can survive, they have not seen the VAT cuts or the business rate reductions that others in their industry have, so please can we have that discussion? That should also include the brewers, such as Titanic Brewery, because without the brewers, we would not have the pubs. I fully empathise with my colleagues; the pubs are under strain, and while that £1,000 is welcome, it certainly will not cover the cost of Christmas trade lost. However, if the brewers go down, then ultimately so will the pubs, so we need to look further.

Silicon Stoke, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) alluded to, is an amazing opportunity. Some 104 km of gigabit is installed across the city already, which is about to plug into 100,000 homes and businesses across the city of Stoke-on-Trent, making us a UK leader. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to become the heart of the video games industry, linking in with the skills produced at Staffordshire University, making us a real beacon. If we can be an enterprise zone for video games, it will incentivise those businesses and potential start-up grants across the city, pushed by the Independent Game Developers’ Association—the trade association body of the video games industry. That will be an exciting opportunity for Stoke-on-Trent.

As the Minister also oversees housing, I do not want to miss the opportunity to plug the opportunity of brownfields. There are over 20 brownfield sites, totalling more than 80 acres, which are ripe for development. They are held back by the viability of the land, with low land values and high remediation costs. Meanwhile, there are other former factory sites of national importance, such as Price and Kensington Teapot Works in Longport, just outside the mother town of Burslem, which could be a catalyst for economic growth, but instead are being left to rot by absentee landowners.

Those areas have been forgotten by levelling up. There has not been forceful action against those who seek to bring an area down. I ask the Minister to back my ten-minute rule Bill for the proper maintenance of land, which will remove the level 3 fine for absentee and rogue landowners, and instead allow the judge to make a decision about how seriously the owner has disregarded the local community and area and the local authority’s call to do more. It is a simple change to the wording of the legislation. It would cost the Government absolutely nothing, but it would mean that we could finally take these rogue owners to court. It is not just Price and Kensington; places in Burslem are affected too.

I have one final plug for the heartbeat of my constituency that is always being forgotten, the sleeping giant that is Chatterley Whitfield colliery. It was the first mine to produce 1 million tonnes of coal a year, in 1937 and 1939. This is a daunting site, which will cost lots of money. I appreciate that, but if we take a step-by-step approach to break down the site and turn it into a proper business park mixed with a heritage centre, that sleeping giant can become a beacon of hope and opportunity. It could also potentially supply geothermal energy—my hon. Friend and I recently had a call with the Coal Authority—that could help produce the new green industrial revolution, providing cleaner, greener and more affordable heating and electricity to the homes of north Staffordshire, which I know would go a long way.

The Minister has had lots of asks made of him. The town deal for Kidsgrove is in with his Department. I hope that will get the sign-off for the £25 million. Next, I will be coming for a share of money for Tunstall. I will be demanding that Burslem finally be made a pilot for high street regeneration and rejuvenation, because it is a ghost town. It has the most closed high-street shops of anywhere in the UK, and it is about time the mother town is no longer forgotten.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for initiating this important debate. Only last week I was in this Chamber speaking on a debate about levelling up. That, too, was about areas in the north. The stark reality is that the north has faced decades of underfunding, which has only been exacerbated during this pandemic. All hon. Members spoke passionately about that underfunding.

In times like these, those years of failing to fund statutory services show their actual cracks. Sadly, the results have been deadly. People in the north have been more likely to have their working hours reduced or to have lost their jobs altogether. As the shadow Chancellor put it, bluntly and tragically, they have been more likely to die of covid-19.

Years of underfunding means that investment per person in the Staffordshire pottery towns is less than half of that seen in London. Over the past decade in the region we have seen a decrease in both health and education investment per head. The north simply does not have enough beds and hospitals. The toll on hospitals in the north, therefore, is far more severe than those with capacity in the south. The impact on schools means that after years of underfunding, 75 out of 86 schools in Stoke-on-Trent are still in crisis, with an estimated £6.7 million shortfall in 2020 and £174 lost per pupil even before the effects of the pandemic.

At the beginning of this pandemic, I am sure Conservative Members will remember, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government promised to fund councils with whatever was needed. Councils are facing an estimated £1 billion funding gap this year. That estimate was made prior to the introduction of the national lockdown, so the gap could now grow to be in the region of £2 billion. We have already seen the Chancellor pursue a public sector pay freeze for those who worked day and night, the public sector workers putting themselves at risk to deliver for this nation during the hard times. If councils, including Stoke-on-Trent, do not receive the funding they need, those same people may also face job losses.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) recently raised the unfair formula from Government on pothole funding for Stoke-on-Trent. I share those concerns, though I would like to add it is not just in Stoke-on-Trent; our nation’s roads are plagued by a pothole epidemic and the road maintenance backlog is valued at more than £10 billion.

Important investment projects were axed in 2010, only to resurface at greater cost later. Consecutive Governments have failed to provide the funding needed and now, when our public finances are already stretched with the pandemic, we are forced to accept a price we would not have needed to accept.

I want to follow up on the welcome, if slightly belated, announcement of the Government’s plans for the UK Shared Prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund, both of which have the potential to provide much-needed funds to our communities. I hope the Minister can provide further clarity on both those funds. I understood from the Chancellor’s statement last week that next year would see the launch of pilots of the types of scheme that the UK SPF will fund when it is eventually launched.

Will the Minister provide further details on how communities and local authorities will be able to access those pilots, and what form they might take? I am particularly interested, for example, whether he could confirm if partnerships of community organisations, local businesses and local authorities will be able to access this preparatory UK SPF funding next year. We have seen this year the value of local authorities and metro Mayors to their communities. Will any of the UK SPF be devolved to local or regional government to be distributed by them, working in their local communities?

The Chancellor also said in his statement last week that the whole of the UK will benefit from the UK SPF and, over time, we will ramp up funding, so that local domestic UK-wide funding would at least match EU receipts on average, reaching around £1.5 billion per year. The total funding, however, from EU receipts has been, on average, £2.1 billion per year, according to the House of Commons Library. Will the Minister clarify why there is that stark difference?

Finally on the UK SPF, will the Minister clarify why, given that the fund was first announced in the Conservative manifesto of the 2017 general election, we are only now trialling the fund? It is a shame, given the three years since that election, that we have not seen the design of the fund launched and consulted on, as was originally promised.

I would like to move on to the levelling-up fund, announced for the first time last week. I understand it is to be jointly administered by the Minister’s Department, the Treasury and the Department for Transport from Whitehall. As with the towns fund, we welcome any investment into held-back towns across the country after a decade of neglect by this Government. There has, however, been much debate, both in Parliament and the press, about the way the towns fund was designed, with a host of deserving towns inexplicably losing out. Has the Minister taken any lessons from that into the design of the levelling-up fund, so that those bidding can be reassured that they will not be excluded from receiving investment at the whim of Ministers?

Will the Minister also tell us who will be able to submit bids to the fund, and who they will need to support bids? It would be helpful to understand, for example, how the value of an MP’s support would be weighed against the support of a local council. I am sure that the Minister would not want to see deserving bids for funding submitted by councils fail because of the intransigence of a local MP. I am making a particular reference. We would not like to see another situation where one Minister signs off another Minister’s £25 million for their local town when those are marginal seats. That would be a travesty.

We gather from the Chancellor’s statement that the fund will be based on competitive bids, so will the Minister clarify what steps his Department will take to ensure that all of our communities are able to put bids together, and that the poorest are not disadvantaged? Finally, I hope he will also confirm if the focus of the fund on growth and regeneration outcomes encompasses social values, community wealth building and inclusive economic development.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. It is a great pleasure to respond to the eloquent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and by those colleagues from around Staffordshire. It is a particular pleasure to supplant my hon, Friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, who was gazetted to respond to the debate. Because he was not able to be here, it gives me the rare opportunity of a journey home on a Tuesday afternoon and to be among friends and colleagues who are among some of the best Members of Parliament in our House of Commons. They represent the most dynamic, most determined and most go-ahead county in the country. I should, of course, declare an interest: I am a Member of Parliament for Staffordshire.

It was pleasing to hear the fine speeches of my colleagues and of the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South to securing the best possible future for Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. I assure him it is entirely the ambition of the Government to achieve his ends. Levelling up is central to our agenda. That is why we have set out a clear commitment to unlocking economic prosperity across all areas of our country. Levelling up is about providing the momentum to address the sorts of long-standing regional inequalities that we have heard mentioned by colleagues around the Chamber and to provide the means to pursue life chances that have been previously out of touch for so many.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a new £4 billion levelling-up fund that has been discussed today. That will supersede the existing local growth fund streams with something like £600 million being available next year across England. I will say a word or two about that in a moment.

To help people to prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity fund—a point raised by Members across the Chamber and, by the way, we are a big-hearted county and are pleased to welcome interlopers from West Yorkshire such as the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and to hear their points about northern counties—we will next year provide £220 million to support communities across the UK to pilot programmes and new approaches. The UK-wide investment framework will be announced in 2021 and that will confirm the multi-year funding profiles in the next spending review. These deliverables are hugely important in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire to address the barriers to growth and to harness the energy and enthusiasm that local leaders and Members of Parliament have to unlock the ambitious opportunities for the local area and ensure a strong economic recovery from covid-19.

I am pleased that two towns in north Staffordshire were invited to submit proposals for town deals as part of our £3.6 billion towns fund. It is key to our levelling-up agenda and those landmark deals will see millions invested in projects across the country. Kidsgrove submitted its town investment plan in October; it is currently being assessed by officials. Newcastle-under-Lyme is due to submit its town investment plan in January next year. If that is successful, those areas will have the opportunity to invest in their local economies at this critical time. I wish all power to their elbow in those endeavours.

I am particularly pleased that the town deal boards in Kidsgrove and Newcastle-under-Lyme are working closely with members of their local community, alongside businesses, investors and local government, to achieve that end. They will bring forward a competitive round of the Towns fund in due course, and will also welcome further proposals from all local authorities to transform our towns and high streets.

On the issue of high streets, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), the need for regeneration is particularly evident. High streets in our country have seen considerable declines in the last decade, and have certainly been affected by covid-19. Our Future High Streets fund is designed to revitalise and reimagine the important roles these places have. We want to help high streets to adapt and evolve, and also to remain vibrant and safe places at the heart of our local communities. We hope to make announcements of the successful submissions before the end of the year, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme will be eagerly awaiting that announcement.

A number of hon. and right hon. Members raised the issue of the levelling-up fund, which was announced at the spending review by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) mentioned the fund with all his usual enthusiasm and determination, but I caution him for being occasionally just a little too modest. To describe investment in Stoke-on-Trent as a risk is overly modest. We regard investment in Stoke-on-Trent as an opportunity—an opportunity to be harnessed. I hope that, through the levelling-up fund and the six hundred millions that will be made available through it, there will be opportunities to be had for cities such as Stoke-on-Trent.

This is a cross-departmental fund that will invest in local infrastructure. It will have a visible effect on people and their communities, and will support local recovery in high-value projects such as bypasses, road schemes and railway station upgrades—the sorts of things mentioned by a number of colleagues—as well as upgrades to town centres, community infrastructure and also local arts and culture. The fund will be open to all local areas in England and will prioritise bids to drive growth and regeneration in places that need it: the sorts of places that have seen particular challenges, and areas that have received less Government investment in recent and past years. I hope that my colleagues around north Staffordshire will be pricking up their ears at those points.

The £100 million brownfield regeneration fund that we are making available was also mentioned. We have already invested £400 million in mayoral combined authorities, which will unlock something like 26,000 new homes. I rather hope that the £100 million that we are making available—which will be spread in places other than mayoral combined authorities—will also have the same salutary effect. I certainly heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and others said about the 20 sites and 80 acres of available land in Stoke-on-Trent North. I will be keeping my eye on Stoke and north Staffordshire to that end.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) made the important point about business certainty. That is on the mind of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and all Ministers, as we look to emerge from the pandemic crisis. They will want to look carefully to give businesses as much notice as possible of changes to the tiering system, but they will of course also want to look at the most up-to-date evidence available on which to base their decisions. They have to balance the data with the lead time, to give businesses the right sort of notice. I am sure that they will have both considerations on their minds.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands also encouraged me to lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to speak favourably of the funding formula and the way value for money is considered. I say to her, and to hon. Members around the Chamber, that not all good ideas start in the Treasury, but good ideas can end there if the Treasury do not like them. However, to the best of my ability, I will always endeavour to represent to the Chancellor my local interest and that of my colleagues and friends in Staffordshire, in order to make sure the right and best decisions are made in the interests of our constituents, as well as the interests of all hon. Members’ constituents around the country.

It is probably worth me saying a word about the business support we have provided to Stoke-on-Trent during the pandemic. Something like £13.9 million has gone to support businesses that closed between 5 November and 2 December, on top of the £120 billion of funding that has been made available to businesses. I probably do not have enough time to go through this topic in detail, but let me say that the Government are committed to doing whatever it takes to support businesses big and small around our country to get through and recover from this pandemic. The sooner a business can get back to work, the sooner people can get back to their normal lives, and the sooner we can recover from this pandemic and get our economy back on the road.

I was particularly struck by what all colleagues said about the ceramic valley. I am aware of the fantastic progress being made in the ceramic valley enterprise zone. The successful regeneration of long-abandoned sites such as Tunstall Arrow, Highgate and Ravensdale is a great success story and has created something like 900 new jobs. I know that local councils, the local enterprise partnership and Members of Parliament have been working in harmony to maximise the potential of that enterprise zone, and I certainly hope to play my part in encouraging that still further. I am also conscious that, as this century develops, we want to make sure that places such as Staffordshire and Stoke are tech hubs. Stoke might not be in a valley, but it is certainly a city that can be on a hill, as an exemplar of what can be done with technological advancement. We started 100 years ago as anthracite Staffordshire; now we are becoming silicon, with silicon Stoke at the heart of that great advance, and the Government will continue to support those advances to the best of their energies and endeavours.

My hon. Friends also mentioned transport. The Department for Transport is responsible for the Transforming Cities fund: a crucial £29 million’s worth of investment, which can do so much to change the way in which the transport infrastructure of Stoke and, indeed, north Staffordshire is designed. I believe that an announcement on that is imminent. It would be entirely wrong of me to speak for my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), but I am sure he will be looking closely and favourably at that bid, and I trust that my hon. Friends and colleagues from Staffordshire will hear more about it soon.

I should also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South on his doughty campaign in favour of Fenton. I hear entirely what he says about its importance, and I will carry his remarks to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Transport. It may be that Fenton was forgotten by Arnold Bennett, but my hon. Friend has certainly not forgotten it, and nor have I.

In conclusion, British prosperity will be sustained by those who capture and capitalise on those opportunities to level up their communities, deliver enduring change, and develop sustainability. The pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire are places where such people exist, and we must capitalise on their resources and revitalise their area.

It is a delight to have a Staffordshire colleague responding as the Minister, and it is fantastic to hear his support for Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. We have heard some fantastic contributions from neighbouring colleagues from across north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. I can assure the Minister that we will be putting in some very strong bids for the Levelling-Up fund. We want some of that funding to come to Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire, so we will be putting in strong bids that will ensure we can recover strongly from covid, better than we were before, and get our economy back on track. We will get our country and Stoke-on-Trent levelled up, so that we can get those opportunities into the city and into north Staffordshire.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Government’s levelling-up agenda and post covid-19 economic recovery in North Staffordshire Potteries towns.

Sitting suspended.