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Levelling-up Agenda: Opportunities for Northern Ireland

Volume 710: debated on Monday 7 March 2022

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the potential opportunities for Northern Ireland of the levelling-up agenda. (905896)

The Secretary of State met the then First Minister of Northern Ireland when the levelling-up White Paper was published to discuss the many opportunities for Northern Ireland as part of that agenda, and I met Conor Murphy, the Minister of Finance, last Thursday to discuss the delivery of the UK shared prosperity fund in Northern Ireland. I look forward to working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on this in the coming months.

I thank the Minister for meeting me last week to discuss these important opportunities for regions such as Northern Ireland. The levelling-up White Paper identified hydrogen bus development as a key economic boost. So far, five strategic schemes have been put in place for zero-emission buses across the UK, and all five are very welcome but they are battery electric. Will the next five schemes be driven by hydrogen? Can the Minister ensure that there is joined-up thinking on this across the Departments?

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify an important opportunity for Northern Ireland through the hydrogen agenda. As part of all the things we are doing on levelling up, including the third increase in research and development spending outside the greater south-east, the strengthening places agenda, or the many things we are doing with higher and further education in Northern Ireland, there are many opportunities to advance the important agenda that he has prioritised.

Until recently, European aid was the main means of regenerating communities in some of the devolved nations, but that European aid was restricted to certain parts of the nations. Now, the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund will give us the opportunity to regenerate other parts of the UK, particularly those areas that did not qualify for European aid. When the next window opens for the levelling-up fund, will the Minister pay particular attention to communities such as Barry, which now qualify for the levelling-up fund but did not previously qualify for European aid?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the next round of levelling-up funding will be opening shortly. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that outside the European Union we have a lot more flexibility about how we spend, and we can use that to pick up some of those exciting opportunities in other places.