Skip to main content

Levelling Up: South-west

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2023

I will call Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. Mr Liddell-Grainger is feeling generous, so he will take short interventions.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered levelling up in the South West.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am delighted to see you. I thank the House for granting me this short debate.

The phrase “levelling up” is not a recent innovation, believe it or not. It was talked about in Parliament 150 years ago, as some hon. Members may remember. In the 1860s, for example, their noble lordships and the bishops were getting bogged down in another place debating delicate questions about rival religions in Ireland. A wise old peer intervened and said that we could only treat Anglicans and Catholics equally

“by levelling up or by levelling down”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 1868; Vol. 193, c. 183.]

I do not know whether hon. Members can make head or tail of that, but that is levelling up.

I am delighted that the Minister for Levelling Up is in her place; I am so pleased that she is replying to this debate, and I thank her for her thoughts and kindness. I doubt whether there is any political disagreement about the principles of keeping everything level. Why should there be? It means working to equalise opportunities and providing a level playing field for constituents across the UK. Right now, the only people who could possibly object to a level playing field, as we understand it, are the Australian cricket team, and I am pretty sure that Jonny Bairstow would agree with me—damned foreigners!

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in which my hon. Friend plays an invaluable role, has published some maps that are very detailed indeed. They show how much money has been allocated to a huge array of projects in our constituencies all over the country. They are very large maps, covered with multicoloured markers. They remind me of the huge maps down in the depths of the RAF Uxbridge command centre on the western outskirts of London, where I have been recently—it may ring some bells. Those maps are from 83 years ago, so I am glad to see that we are still using the old tried and trusted methods.

It is helpful to keep that image in mind, because the scale of the task in levelling up is almost as heavy as it was for the battle of Britain. It is a herculean task, especially when we study those maps. As one naturally would, I immediately noticed the markers in my own constituency. Bridgwater’s transport needs have had to be reorganised with a very large grant indeed, for which I am incredibly grateful. The towns fund, for which I am also very grateful, will be used to bump up facilities in the constituency. There are also to be a new NHS training centre for Bridgwater and Minehead. These are well thought-out projects, and I am very grateful for the money. It has been a great team effort by a lot of good people.

Inevitably, my eyes wander around these vast maps. I know Somerset, and as colleagues know, I come from Devon originally. Strangely, the bits that stick out are not the places with coloured markers; they are the areas without a single flag or marker in sight, like Mid Devon. There ought to be only two possible conclusions: either those places are so prosperous that they do not need help, which colleagues well know is not the case, or they are bleak, empty deserts where nobody lives at all, which is obviously not true either—they are extremely good areas. In fact, levelling up has not reached these places either because bids have been submitted but have not made it or because there have been no bids at all.

It would not be fair to blame the Government. That is not how this works, and we know it. The rules of levelling up have not changed, from the first opportunity we went for many years ago to what we have now. If we want a project to be considered, we have to do one simple thing: work out exactly what we hope to achieve and then make a very intelligent, well thought-out bid. I get the distinct impression that sometimes—not just in my constituency, but right across the area, because I have looked at an enormous amount of bids—the intelligence is in slightly short supply. There has to be a proper business case, as the Minister is well aware.

I currently represent an area that has an exceptional district council, which has spearheaded the bids. Sedgemoor District Council has been a shining example in this and has had more bids than anywhere in the country. It understood local needs; it also got local people involved at the highest level. At the same time, it managed to mastermind national and international negotiations to bring many thousands of jobs to Bridgwater, and beyond. In fact, this affects all our constituencies.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s speech and the points that he is making. Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset have secured £231 million from the levelling-up fund so far. Plus, we have seen the reopening of the Dartmoor line and spades in the ground to dual more of the A303. Those four counties make up the great south-west; I chair the all-party parliamentary group for the great South West. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that although the Government are backing our region, there is still much more to do?

I am incredibly grateful for that intervention, not only because my hon. Friend has done sterling work in the south-west and is well known and revered for it but because the A303 has been a labour of love for him; I know that it has been incredibly hard. For 22 years, Sir Charles—as you know, I have been here that long, God help you—it has been a bone of contention, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) has managed to move it on further than almost any of us, and I congratulate him on that. The A303 is crucial for all of us.

That neatly brings me on to the fact that Sedgemoor smoothed the way for building Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, as my colleagues are well aware. This was a mammoth task for a local council. It did a superb job, an amazing job, on a £25 billion project, which nobody had done for a generation. Sedgemoor has also been working incredibly hard to attract the latest innovations to the town. The chances are that the latest opportunity will soon be announced. I cannot say what it is, but it is called Gravity and it is on an old bombsite outside Bridgwater; it goes to 626 acres. I think that we will hopefully be announcing good news on that soon. Again, that will help the whole south-west with a massive input—

It is really good to hear about the work of Sedgemoor District Council and the excellent bid that the hon. Member put his weight behind. When I became MP for Tiverton and Honiton last year, I gave my endorsement to a bid by Mid Devon District Council to build a relief road at Cullompton. This and a railway station at Cullompton would be fantastic in easing congestion and improving people’s health. Does the hon. Member agree with me that Mid Devon District Council was right to prioritise the levelling-up fund bid for the relief road at Cullompton?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. I did say earlier that there was a lack of intelligence in some of these bids, and the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Perhaps having had a little bit more intelligence from, if I may say so, certain people could have been a little bit more helpful. It is a great shame that we did not get what was bid for. That is a great shame. But I can give an assurance that although Cullompton will not be in the new constituency, I think that it is in our interests to work together to try to get this. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been very good on this and that I and my neighbours will be having a conservation with her about it. I think that we can probably do something and add intelligence to it, if I may be so proud—who needs the education corps?

Meanwhile, just over the border, the district council—dare I say it to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord)?—limps along. Since May, it has been under Lib Dem management, but it is absolutely rudderless. The new Lib Dem leader—forgive me, but his name has escaped me—has announced that he will only work part time. Perhaps that is actually a blessing for everybody—you never can tell these days. It certainly shares out the spoils of running a council exclusively among themselves. This is why we need people who can do the job. All the councillors running the main committees are, yes, Liberal Democrats. That includes the important scrutiny committee —yes, exactly. There is considerable doubt whether the Lib Dem lady who chairs the committee is able to scrutinise anything, including her own shopping list.

No. The Lib Dems said that they were going to scrap bigger charges for car parks. Guess what? They are putting them up. The new councillors could have reneged on their annual increase in allowances —now up to £5,600 a year. They voted to abstain, dare I say it? I do not know how you vote to abstain, but never mind. So they get paid anyway. The new council leader, whatever his name is, also picks up £16,800 for his extra responsibility of being a part-time leader—and you wonder why these bids fail. That makes £22,000 in total. “Ching”, as the cash register goes. To think that they promised to be totally transparent. The truth is that these people are not transparent at all; they are totally invisible. Levelling up demands visibility—that is something that I have learned. Very vocal, completely focused local authorities need to argue the case. It has been proved that that is how to get results.

What price for Mid Devon’s part-timers? A vital new high school is needed in Tiverton. I am grateful for the Minister’s incredible help on that. Just before Christmas last year, the Government said, “Yes, the money is ready and waiting.” It is still waiting. We know the issue, and I thank the Government for their help. Seven months later, no progress has been made. Did anybody ask? Well, I have asked, and we are getting to the bottom of it. That is what this is about. Does the part-time leader of the council, Mr Thingummybob, pick up the blower and complain? Who knows what has become of the other invisible people, including the one who was suddenly catapulted, dare I say it, closer to here, last seen with clipboards and pencils preparing a strategy.

Levelling up means many things, but usually it means the unequal treatment of rural parts of the south-west. That is most important: we are rural areas.

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent speech and for raising this topic. He is talking about things within our rural constituencies, but may I make a point about coastal communities? Within my constituency, I have Brixham harbour, which we put in a bid for. The two bids that we put in under the Liberal Democrat administration in Torbay failed; thankfully, it is now a Conservative administration. Where there are successful stories, such as Brixham fish market, we should not rule it out because it is making money; we should recognise the potential of what it could do for the whole county, were we to invest in it and give it the support that it needs.

A superb synopsis, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does. Leave the Lib Dems in charge and, as I said, the intelligence goes. I am sorry that the bid was lost, but we will be back. The Minister is listening, and I know that we will get the bid, because in rural areas such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes we have to fight our corner. That is especially important in places such as Cornwall. We are joined by my Whip, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), to ensure that I behave.

I backed a levelling-up bid from the then Plymouth Conservative council in St Peter’s, which is one of the lowest super output areas in the entire region. Sadly, we were turned down in that bid. I would be grateful if the hon. Member could lend his support for clarity on what a levelling-up round 3 might look like—whether it will be a “Hunger Games”-style competitive bid, or whether there will be devolution of funding so that local authorities can back the projects that they know would work in their area. Does he agree that it should be the latter, because local people know better?

I completely agree, as I have already said, about local, intelligent, highly-motivated people. Having been in Somerset now for 25 years, St Paul’s is slightly legendary. It does need help. We have to say that. Talk to the police in Bridgwater: St Paul’s is always an issue. The Minister will have heard the second part of what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, and I cannot disagree. It is vital. In the middle of Bristol is one of the most affluent areas of the south-west, but outside of Bristol it is completely different. The hon. Member’s seat has challenges. We all have to face up to that. I know the job that he does, and it is difficult.

I will move on—with more abuse, if I may. Yesterday morning, I received a self-congratulatory letter from Project Gigabit’s Minister of State telling me about the wonderful developments of bringing ultra-fast broadband to the extremities of Somerset and Devon. I had a giggle about that. There is no encouraging news for either of the counties, partly because the broadband roll-out has been left in the incapable hands of “Project Useless”, actually known as Connecting Devon and Somerset. CDS is a total cock-up. It was designed—I think that is loosely the word—by someone in a hurry and without a fully functioning brain. There does not seem to be anybody on the board capable of understanding the technology or writing a contract. How many times have we had problems? As a result, millions have been committed in public money to an organisation that could not deliver. Now Connecting Devon and Somerset is still failing to deliver, and it is two years behind schedule.

Do not bother storming round to the CDS office, because it does not have one, which is great. It is run by councillors, who are mostly part time, across the two counties, and employs only a handful of people, who are doing their best but are basically not up to the job. We need to move on. We have to sort out broadband in rural areas across all our counties. The same goes for the management of what turns out to be the worst water company in the United Kingdom. Never mind Thames Water, we have South West Water. It overpays its top team, dumps sewage in rivers, fails to invest in new reservoirs, yet wants to be treated like a paragon of virtue. It sells services in Bristol and Bournemouth as well as in Devon and Cornwall. They are up to their necks in it.

No. Anyway, I received a jolly little email from the PR chief, which I would like to share. I will read, if I may, the first paragraph of the email I got yesterday, addressed to “Dear Mr Liddell-Grainger”, which was spelled correctly.

“I wanted to get in touch in advance of your levelling-up debate. May I congratulate you on securing this important debate? If you are planning to attend this debate on Tuesday I would be grateful if you or your team could confirm this.”

That is a water company supplying millions of people with water, yet is not sure I am turning up for my own debate. What hope have the rivers and fish of Somerset and Devon got, with people like that? If I may, I would also like to bring in potholes, the bane of all our lives.

I apologise for having two bites of the cherry, but since my hon. Friend has raised South West Water, does he not agree with me that, if it is failing to clean up our waterways or expand our storm overflows, and is not following the laws that we have passed in this place, namely around dividend payments, we have to ask the question, what is the point of this place, if the company is not going to follow those laws? We have to ask it not to take Parliament into contempt when it comes to enacting the stringent laws that we have passed to ensure that it cleans up our waterways.

I am very grateful for that extremely serious intervention. My hon. Friend is quite right; it is beyond the pale. South West Water is a disgrace at every level. We are rightly trying to hold its feet to the fire. It has to be brought to account. If necessary, we have to get representatives here to ensure they understand just what a shambles and disgrace the company is. It is damaging the environment, damaging confidence and damaging people’s water. It is failing at every level. My hon. Friend gave an extremely good example of how it is holding this place, us, and the elected representatives of the people of the United Kingdom in contempt. That is wrong.

But back to potholes! Potholes are the bane of all our lives. Minister, I know they do not come under the remit of levelling up, but would it not be sensible if they did? Somerset has more roads than Belgium, and who knows where Belgium is? Weak beer and people in strange hats. Minister, we need to look at giving money to pothole improvement, in Somerset and Devon, as both counties desperately need it, which is important.

Before I give up, I would like to thank one person who is a star in my constituency, Emma Thomasson. Her father-in-law was a colleague of ours, Bob Walter, who was in this place for many years. She has been working flat out to put a bid together on the west Somerset side, which could easily incorporate Devon, because it is about learning and skills, rural access, mobility and giving young people opportunities in our areas. We know it is not easy. A-level provision is not good, local buses are not good, trains—well, we will gloss over that. People like her, who are dedicated to trying to get us forward are doing really well.

I will conclude by saying this. Levelling up is a deadly serious business; I know because I have done a lot of bids. I believe that the Government are treating it seriously, having talked to many Ministers, but they cannot do it alone. We have got to work together to achieve this. It needs practical local people producing workable plans that will benefit the greatest number of residents, and provide real value for money across the whole county and country. Levelling up is something that we all know works. We know it can work in rural areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Totnes, for East Devon and for North Cornwall have made the point time and again: give us the money, give us the tools, and we will deliver the job.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and a pleasure indeed to hear such a characteristically colourful contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). I congratulate him on securing this important debate.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about what the Government’s agenda on levelling up really means for the south-west of England. I want to dispel the common misconception that levelling up is solely about north and south. It is about so much more than that. It is as relevant to Minehead as it is to Manchester, and it is as much about rural and coastal communities as it is about towns and cities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) mentioned Brixham harbour, which he has discussed with me on multiple occasions. I am very supportive of the project, so I hope that we can secure something really positive for him from future funding. Levelling up is about unlocking the potential of every place and person right across the UK, because only once we have done that that will we be able to maximise the strength of our economy, increase its resilience and, ultimately, improve the lives of everyone across the UK. That really is at the heart of levelling up.

It is not business as usual; we are changing the way the Government work with places to reverse inequality and unleash opportunity, prosperity and pride in place in all parts of the UK. We will do that by empowering local leaders and communities to deliver tangible changes through investment; boosting productivity, pay and living standards by growing the private sector; spreading opportunities and improving public services; and, finally and perhaps most crucially, restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging. Our outlook can be distilled into one core idea: that no matter where someone is born, they should have a fair opportunity to succeed. Our message and mission are simple: stay local and go far.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The Cullompton relief road has been part of the Mid Devon District Council levelling-up bid on two occasions. In both the first round and the second round, the bid was unsuccessful. How does the Minister recommend that Mid Devon District Council should pursue the relief road?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning the Cullompton relief road, but I am afraid he has been pipped to the post, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) has raised the issue with me on multiple occasions, to the point that it is probably one of my favourite relief roads. I hear about it weekly.

There will be a third round of the levelling-up fund, which is an incredibly exciting opportunity for local areas. The Government are easing the bureaucracy and burden of bidding rounds by simplifying the funding landscape, and we are introducing further funds, such as the shared prosperity fund, to provide further input for local people and hand powers and tools back to local areas so that they can deliver on their local priorities.

Where bids fail, what consideration has been given to loaning the money to organisations and councils, on the basis that the Government will reclaim it in the future, to allow levelling up not just for Government organisations but for the private sector?

My hon. Friend raises a really interesting point. As I said, we have been exploring alternative funding streams, such as the UK shared prosperity fund, but the most exciting opportunity we have is proper devolution. We are rolling out devolution deals around the country so that local powers and local cash are in the hands of local people. To me, that is the better and right approach to enable long-term strategic thinking locally, but I certainly heard my hon. Friend’s point loud and clear, and I will be happy to discuss it with him further.

I am trying to understand whether the third round of funding for levelling up will be allocated in a similar way to previous rounds. The Minister talks about devolution. I am in favour of devolution, and I think that most of us in the Chamber are, because people in Devon and the south-west know their communities better than any mandarin, no matter how good, in Whitehall. Will future rounds of levelling-up funding be allocated in parallel with devolution deals? Devon is looking at a devolution deal at the moment, but we are uncertain about the timescales for the levelling-up funding and the devolution bid. Could the Minister provide some clarity on what will come first and on how they will interact?

As it stands, the two are separate strands, as the hon. Member will know. At level 3 devolution, there is the opportunity to access an investment fund, which is a fantastic way to fund local infrastructure projects and the like. It is up to local areas to decide what level of devolution they wish to pursue, and we are in talks with Devon, Plymouth and Torbay to explore opportunities there. As for round 3 of the levelling-up fund, we are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, so it would be inappropriate for me to make any announcements today, but I assure Members that we will provide full detail in due course and very soon. I hope that provides the clarity that the hon. Member seeks.

I am not suggesting that levelling up is a quick fix that will happen overnight, but our levelling-up plans, underpinned by 12 ambitious missions, are set to be achieved by 2030. For that to happen, they require serious cross-Government and cross-society efforts. The first mission, for instance, has a target for pay, employment and productivity to grow everywhere, which is vital for the south-west, where average productivity lags the national average.

As I have outlined, our plans will lead to more devolution in more places across England; rebalanced spending across regions in areas such as research and development, arts and culture, and housing; investment in infrastructure and skills to grow the economy; and, crucially, a renewed focus on regeneration, supporting community initiatives and community safety.

To many, the south-west is the region of cream teas, the world’s best cider and buildings made from the famous Bath stone. It is unquestionably a beautiful part of the world, and it is no wonder so many people choose to take holidays and make trips to the south-west. In fact, the south-west attracts more visitors than anywhere else in the UK bar London—but I reckon you guys can catch up if we work hard enough!

Relying on tourism to drive the economy is a double-edged sword, especially in the south-west. While it creates plenty of jobs, many are low-paid, and while it supports countless businesses, that can price local families out of their area. For example, a full-time worker earns an average of £33.40 less per week than the UK average and more than a third of local people do not have a level 3 qualification. The unfortunate reality is that for all the region’s incredible natural beauty, it is also home to significant pockets of deprivation and disadvantage. One in 10 of England’s most deprived neighbourhoods is in the south-west. I have always firmly believed that prospects should never be determined by postcode.

The challenges in the south-west are clear, but so too are the opportunities. The region is home to world-class universities, highly skilled workers and cutting-edge small and medium-sized enterprises. Bristol and Bath are centres of advanced manufacturing and engineering, aerospace and creative industries, Plymouth is a growing centre of expertise in maritime autonomy, and in Torbay, high-potential opportunities in photonics and microelectronics have been identified.

In my Department, we recognise the potential of supporting local projects and are investing—I hope hon. Members are ready for me to rattle off my list— £131 million in them through round 1 of the levelling-up fund. From creating a new training academy for health and social care in Bridgwater, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referenced, to supporting the University of Gloucestershire to bring empty buildings back into use, we are supporting projects that are delivering on local priorities. We are investing a further £198.6 million across nine towns in the region through the towns fund, and an injection of £96.2 million is going to the south-west through the getting building fund. Those are just some examples of the diverse opportunities and incredible local projects that we are funding.

As I have said, we need to empower local leaders and communities, which is why we are carrying out an ambitious package of devolution—the biggest transfer of power away from Westminster to local government in modern times. I am delighted that Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, and Cornwall, are in the first wave, giving local leaders the tools they need to deliver for their communities, such as increased control over transport and infrastructure.

On transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset raised the issue of potholes, that vital scourge on our society. I am pleased to say that there is an £8 billion pothole fund announced by the Government, which I hope he and his community can draw upon.

I am conscious of time, but let me again mention round 2 of the levelling-up fund, which will provide £186.6 million of funding across the south-west. The UK shared prosperity fund, which is worth more than £2.6 billion in total, is living up to the Government’s commitment to match EU structural fund receipts in each nation of the UK and in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. As I said, round 3 of the levelling-up fund will be announced very soon. I am pleased that we will be providing further funding in that way.

Levelling up is not just a slogan or a tagline; it is the central mission and commitment of this Government. We have defined the problem and drawn up a long-term plan based on measurable missions. Our focus now is on delivery. Work is under way. Funding has been allocated. Devolution deals are being negotiated. The whole of Government is being mobilised towards this goal. Decisions on transport, culture and healthcare are all being viewed through the prism of levelling up. That is no small task, but the size of the prize is clear, and I look forward to continuing to work with all hon. Members present to make levelling up a reality in the south-west.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).