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Devolution for the East Midlands

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)

I am pleased to have secured this important debate on devolution in the east midlands region. I understand that the forthcoming levelling-up White Paper will set out the Government’s plan for further rounds of local and sub-regional devolution. If so, it seems a pertinent time to examine the opportunity in the east midlands to put an ambitious levelling-up and devolution package at the heart of a sustained recovery for our region. I have had some exploratory discussions with other council leaders across the region and have been met largely with enthusiasm and a commitment to explore our options in more detail. There is a genuine will and a drive to get on with things in the east midlands. We need the Government to give us the tools to do the job at hand for UK plc.

I pay tribute to the great work of leaders across the region who have come together in recent years on projects such as HS2, our development corporation and our freeport. Those leaders, from across the public and private sectors, have shown courage and commitment to the region, bringing forward ambitious plans despite the pressures of the pandemic. In my conversations with those colleagues, there is a strong ambition to bring power and resources closer to their councils, universities and businesses. In a post-pandemic world, it is vital that we harness that enthusiasm, and commit to rebuilding the east midlands economy, improving the living standards of local people and bringing high-value jobs, sustainable employment, training opportunities, growth and prosperity to the region.

I also thank Sir John Peace for his leadership of the midlands engine. A devolution package for the east midlands would complement and strengthen the work of the engine and Midlands Connect, and help him to deliver on some of the ambitions that he has for the region. It can support the huge effort and resource that he gives to our key priorities.

The east midlands is home to more than 5 million people and over 175,000 businesses. It has a diverse mix of counties and cities, market towns, countryside, and distinct culture and communities. It contains world-class business, innovation and manufacturing excellence. The east midlands economy has untapped potential for growth. Despite this critical mass and potential, the east midlands has received some of the lowest levels of Government investment over many years compared with other parts of the country.

Ours is a region of undoubted attributes and proud heritage. What is often overlooked, however, is its strategic location, creating, as it does, a bridge between the south and the north of the country. It also has strategic transport links that help connect the Union as they go north through England and up into Scotland. For that reason, the east midlands is vital. It is a hub for our nation, but for too long it has been seen instead as a place that people drive through to get from one place to another. It is so much more than that and we must capitalise on that potential.

The resurgence of the east midlands is critical for the renewal of the UK economy as a whole. Given our position at the bottom of those rankings for investment, we must therefore be at the centre of a levelling-up agenda. An east midlands combined authority, under a unified vision and plan that is complementary to the midlands engine and the Government’s devolution and recovery ambitions, would be levelling up in its most literal sense. Other regions with devolution packages, such as the west midlands, Greater Manchester and Teesside have more local powers and more powers to make a real impact. A package for the east midlands would equalise those things and bring us up to a level of equal opportunity with those other areas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is great to hear the east midlands being debated in this House. As he knows, I am a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and we have been looking at the evolution of English devolution. Tomorrow we will be hearing from the excellent Ben Houchen and also Tracy Brabin. Last week we heard from Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne Mayor and Andy Burnham, who spoke about their experiences. Andy Burnham says that the entities that have been created can help to bring

“coherence to areas that may have felt a little disparate”.

In the context of the east midlands, does my hon. Friend agree that devolution or some sort of authority is the best thing that we can do to bring that region together and get the investment that we really need?

I thank my hon. Friend and Nottinghamshire neighbour for engaging in this debate. He is absolutely right, particularly when it comes to a region such as ours, which does not have that metro centre—an obvious urban hub. We are three cities, three counties with different spatial geographies, different transport links. We need that hub and connectivity to have a single vision for how we plan that across the region, otherwise we will all head off in our own different local directions and will not be able to make a coherent argument to Government. Such a hub is really important for that unity of purpose and delivering that investment.

The unprecedented financial, economic and social challenges facing our area require a more ambitious and dynamic response, which we cannot achieve operating within the status quo. A regional devolution of powers and resources is key to enabling us to be competitive, and ambitious for our people and places. The conditions created by a combined authority would enable us to pool sovereignty and capacity on an unprecedented scale.

The benefits could include a coherent, planned focus on delivery for our economy, a focus on achieving the greatest public value for residents and places, more efficient and effective spatial planning in the region, including transport, and dealing with some of the challenges that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) mentioned.

A unified approach, which would be more attractive to the Government, could work to make sense of the many complex structures that exist in our region—the midlands engine, strategic partners, councils, businesses and investors—bringing a clarity of purpose, strength through unity, and confidence to those who want to invest in our region. Councils could come together to create a mayoral combined authority. That body would complement the West Midlands Combined Authority to the west, the northern powerhouse to the north, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to the south—in many ways we are the hole in the middle of the doughnut, without the powers that everybody around us seems to have.

Building on our excellence in high tech and advanced manufacturing companies, an east midlands authority could take the regional lead, for example by promoting action on climate change or carbon reduction to be a catalyst for our green economy and artificial intelligence industries of the future. Governance of the authority could be inclusive to provide strategic co-ordination of regional policy, with councils joining forces with industry, higher and further education, and wider public sector partners.

Across the three cities and counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, there are 28 local councils. Through the levelling-up White Paper, there is an opportunity to lay down enabling legislation requiring the vast majority of councils, rather than all, to sign up to a combined authority, so that we can be confident of consensus for a new combined authority and move at pace. An alternative option could be to discuss and negotiate a geography for a mayoral combined authority that could incorporate all partners—the vast majority of local authorities within the region—that wanted to be part of it in the first instance, perhaps with a system of affiliation for others that might want to join. In short, there are options; much of the work and planning for them has been done, much of the documentation exists, and now is very much the right time to explore them.

An east midlands combined authority would create a single voice in the region. A clear and focused channel of communication would improve services to communities and generate additional gross value added, creating new jobs, supporting businesses and promoting radical public sector reform. It would give us localised powers to genuinely tackle inequalities in skills and health in a way that is bespoke and that fits with our communities. That cannot be done from Whitehall; it needs a local drive.

In the past, the Government have challenged the east midlands to work together, and there has been progress. Our new interim development corporation is working to generate nearly £5 billion a year of GVA for our regional economy, 4,500 homes and 84,000 net additional jobs. Transport for the East Midlands provides collective leadership on strategic transport issues, agreeing major investment priorities. There is joint work on strong political consensus across the region on a coherent vision for HS2 around Toton. Partners are working on a business case for an inland freeport, centred around East Midlands airport. We have secured two sites on the longlist for the STEP fusion programme. We are working together on developing defined economic corridors for the A46 and the A50, and partners are working across the region on our covid-19 response.

There are other great projects under way: the Space Park in Leicester, pioneering world-leading research and engineering in space technologies; work in Derby and Derbyshire on future fuels such as hydrogen in partnership with Toyota; and a recently announced partnership with Thomas Heatherwick to reimagine the future of Nottingham city in a post-covid world.

These examples demonstrate the huge potential and the collaboration happening across the region, but the current system is constraining. A combined authority would change that, giving a new mechanism for devolution, pan-regional determination of strategic priorities, dialogue with Government and a credible delivery partner. For all the many boards and bodies that we now have and all the work we are doing together, none has the financial clout or the legal powers to deliver. This is the next step that we need to take.

The initial priorities for the east midlands authority could include a strategic approach to working with industry on a zero-carbon future and full-fibre connectivity for the east midlands, establishing it as one of the most digitally enabled regions of the UK. It could manage a co-ordinated and targeted plan for transport infrastructure that supports our wider growth, particularly through delivering the benefits of HS2, the development corporation, the freeport and our wider spatial vision. It could help us to put together a skills system aligned to our region’s future economic landscape and in tune with the needs of our residents, with more people in employment in higher-skilled jobs, to support business growth and productivity and ensure that all our communities can benefit from that growth.

A joined-up east midlands-wide tourism, culture and heritage strategy could help us to showcase our region and its assets to the world, including our world-class destinations—the Peak district, Sherwood forest, Bosworth battlefield—our vibrant cities and our rich heritage. Bringing partners together in this way offers enormous potential to tackle the great challenges of our times, including climate change. We have begun that journey through initiatives such as the midlands engine 10-point plan for green growth, but there is much more that we can do by working together, pooling capacity, innovation and resources. We are famous for our invention and innovation and can become a world leader in green growth with the right incentives.

In summary, I believe that this is the right time to create a strongly governed east midlands combined authority. Any successful reform is a combination of strong central Government direction and locally led implementation. The current covid-19 crisis demonstrates that: the best of our response has been where central Government have provided the policy and local areas have implemented it. We know from our joint work on HS2, the development corporation and the freeport that there is latent potential for inward investment. The east midlands has a low level of private capital and now more than ever, with Government funds strained by covid, we need to attract investment to our region to fuel that recovery, growth and prosperity. We have so much to offer, and bringing our undoubted potential to the market in a unified and coherent way will pay dividends now and for future generations.

If the UK economy and society are going to move forward quickly, decisions must be made at the right level, freeing us up locally to work across wider areas and to get on with the job of securing growth and prosperity. I am asking the Government to look at this carefully, to work with local stakeholders in the region and to support us in trying to make it happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this extremely important debate. He articulated his points passionately on behalf of his community, and I can certainly assure him that his ambition to secure a more prosperous future for the east midlands is shared in every corner of the Government.

I also take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his new role as leader of Nottinghamshire County Council. It is great to see such strong local leadership being provided, which we all recognise is essential to the mission of levelling up. He talked articulately about our passion and commitment to unlocking economic prosperity across all regions of the country, and that is absolutely right. It is why we have made levelling up and the levelling-up agenda a central part of our economic strategy. We plan to address the long-standing economic inequalities, delivering economic opportunity and improving lives and livelihoods up and down the country. Wherever someone was born and wherever they grow up, we believe that they should have an equal opportunity to get on in life, thrive and find the type of opportunity that they want in their life.

As the Prime Minister announced in May, our landmark levelling-up White Paper will be published later this year. It will set out and articulate bold new policies that will improve opportunity, support businesses and boost livelihoods across the country, including in Nottinghamshire and the east midlands. Levelling up is about providing the sort of momentum to address precisely the long-standing local inequalities that my hon. Friend articulated so clearly, providing the means for people to pursue life chances that previously had been out of reach for too many people in too many communities.

We are backing up these ambitions with considerable funding to help to unlock the investments most needed in our communities, particularly as we help local places to rebuild and recover from the pandemic. The White Paper will be a natural continuation of our commitment and support to local places, particularly building on the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund that we announced in the spending review. That fund is enabling local areas across the whole of the UK to invest in the type of infrastructure that improves everyday life. That could be regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport networks, and investing in cultural and heritage assets—exactly the kind of projects that my hon. Friend said are so urgently needed in towns and places in the east midlands.

We published the prospectus in March and explained how we are welcoming bids from all parts of the country, as everywhere has its local challenges, but we have also been clear about the areas of the country that have the highest category of need based on the fund’s priority themes of economic recovery, transport connectivity and regeneration. We have recognised the need in Nottinghamshire with three districts—Bassetlaw, Mansfield, and Newark and Sherwood—as well as the city of Nottingham being identified as category 1, so benefiting from that £125,000 of capacity funding to help them to work up bids for later rounds of the funds. In Derbyshire, Derby and the district of Chesterfield, Derbyshire Dales, Erewash and High Peak have been identified as category 1, along with the city of Leicester. Furthermore, we are recognising explicitly through the levelling-up fund prospectus the crucial role of Members of Parliament in championing the interests of their communities and understanding their local priorities.

Before turning to devolution, I want to mention the community renewal fund, which sits alongside the levelling-up fund and is enabling places to pilot new approaches, tackling the skills, employment and local business support challenges that are faced in different local communities. Ultimately, the UK community renewal fund will help us to pave the way for the introduction of the new UK shared prosperity fund from 2022, about which we will be saying more in an investment framework later this year.

It is important for local areas, councils and groups of communities to look at the dual opportunities of the levelling-up fund and the UK community renewal fund, which have the potential to complement each other extremely positively. Given that many places in Nottinghamshire and the east midlands are among the high-priority areas for UK community fund investment, and given the excellent work that east midlands councils have done in developing plans for more investment in the region, I have no doubt that they will be grasping the opportunities presented by both those important funds.

Nottinghamshire has submitted proposed sites for the STEP programme—an ambitious plan to design and construct a prototype energy plant—including the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station. In March it was announced that the east midlands freeport— based around East Midlands airport, the busiest cargo airport in the country—would be one of eight new freeports. We entirely recognise the scale of the opportunity that that presents for communities in the east midlands. The region’s connectivity to other freeports and the combination of an airport and a rail port create a distinctive offer in comparison with those of other freeports in England, and we are keen to see all partners working together constructively to deliver this for the east midlands.

I am pleased that our officials at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are currently assessing the proposal from the East Midlands Development Corporation, covering Ratcliffe-on-Soar, East Midlands airport and Toton. I commend the councils involved, including Nottinghamshire County Council, for maintaining the momentum and setting up a companies interim vehicle to show intent. I also note that only yesterday local partners met the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), and engaged in productive discussions on progress to date as well as future plans. I understand that the excellent collaborative work of councils in developing these proposals has led to the formation of an Alchemy Board bringing together local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and universities. They are to be commended for working together. It is no surprise that given all this co-operation, consideration is now being given to what devolution should mean in the east midlands.

As I said earlier, the Prime Minister will publish a landmark levelling-up White Paper later this year, which will articulate the bold new policy interventions that will improve livelihoods as we recover from the pandemic. We have already made huge strides towards rebalancing the economy and empowering local government. That has been supported by our programme of devolution, one of the largest in recent decades, including nine mayoral devolution deals and one non-mayoral devolution deal in Cornwall. Forty-one per cent. of the country is now served by metro Mayors, and nearly £7.5 billion of investment funding is being unlocked over 30 years for those combined authority Mayors. That is already paying dividends, with Mayors delivering the programmes that local people want to see on the ground, accountable to the electorate and shaping local priorities.

We recognise that the country is large and diverse, and that what works for our city regions, particularly those with single-tier local authorities, might not be right for every part of the country. Our plans for further devolution will be included in the White Paper which we will launch later this year. Local support for governance changes is of course a key principle for us, and we will welcome proposals from areas for local government reorganisation where there is strong support. However, we appreciate that reform of an area’s local government is most effectively achieved through locally led proposals which are put forward by those who know the area and which have a good deal of support among the councils and stakeholders.

I wholly recognise the complexities of the east midlands, with its three unitary city councils, three county councils and 22 district and borough councils, but there are already clear signs of their willingness to work together. We want to help the area to build on that potential, and it will be extremely interesting to hear more about the proposals my hon. Friend has highlighted today to allow more decisions to be made locally to better serve residents. I welcome the discussions that he has begun, with vigour and passion, and I look forward to further discussions with him and other local leaders to hear how those proposals can be taken forward.

I am aware that Members and local leaders in other parts of the east midlands are also looking at locally appropriate solutions to help deliver levelling up, and I would very much welcome hearing more about that in due course as well. This is an extremely important area, and I think we can make progress working with my hon. Friend, and we will consider his proposals, which I look forward to discussing in more detail. I thank him for bringing this debate to the Chamber today, and we will certainly reflect on the points he has raised as we continue to pursue our levelling-up agenda right across the UK.

Despite the challenges of covid-19, ensuring that the whole country can benefit from the same opportunities remains a core part of our agenda. We will tackle geographical disparities in key services and outcomes across the UK, improving health, education and skills, increasing jobs and growth, building stronger and safer communities, and improving infrastructure and connectivity. We believe that all areas of the country should have the means to positively shape their own future. This is more important now than ever as we look towards the road of recovery. I look forward to working with Members of Parliament and local council leaders from the east midlands to ensure that we can deliver this for our country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.