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Coastal Communities: East Devon

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 8 May 2024

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

I would like to talk about the east Devon coastline and some of the communities that are represented by two MPs—one for a constituency of the same name, and me, the MP for Tiverton and Honiton. The constituency I represent includes the coastal towns and villages of Seaton, Beer, Branscombe and Axmouth. My comments will relate mostly to those communities, although I cannot avoid referring to a town in the current East Devon constituency. I have notified the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) that I will refer to his constituency, given that some of the east Devon infrastructure that I will refer to affects people I represent. Last July and August, I carried out a summer tour of the villages and towns that I represent. As well as taking in some of the larger settlements such as Beer and Colyton, I visited coastal villages like Branscombe and Uplyme. I will mention some of the points that were made to me in the debate.

Before 2022, the Honiton constituency had not been represented by anyone other than a Conservative MP for over 150 years. Why do I raise that in a debate on Government support for communities on the east Devon coastline? I suggest that that Conservative rule of more than a century and a half helps to explain why there has been a tendency by the Conservatives to take east Devon for granted. The National Audit Office estimates that in the decade before 2022, the real spending power of English councils was reduced by 29%. That represented the removal of £10 billion of spending power. The levelling-up funding that replaced it represents less than half that amount.

If properly funded, local government can play a key role in helping our communities to thrive, yet the Government’s levelling-up fund is an inefficient way to support local initiatives, leading to lots of nugatory work from already stretched council officers. Most councils have reached the limits of what can be achieved from efficiency savings. Further cuts will have to come from core services that are valued by the communities that councils serve, such as non-statutory services like public toilets, leisure centres and bus routes. The approach undermines local decision making and local democracy. Decisions about what to fund are made by bureaucrats in Whitehall, who are remote from the people affected by their decisions. Rather than devolving power, as the Liberal Democrats would, this move has further concentrated power here in London.

I thank the hon. Member for allowing me to intervene. He makes a point about levelling-up funding; of course, we have had success with that in my East Devon constituency, which includes the town of Exmouth. What does he make of the fundamental fact that East Devon District Council had the opportunity to apply for money to support the swimming pools—in fact, I was asked to campaign for that money—but then was the only council in the county not to apply for any funding for our swimming pools, which includes an independent pool in his constituency in Axminster? Was it not a huge disappointment that the opportunity was there and was not grasped by our council? What a let down!

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to talk up the great work that goes on in our leisure facilities in east Devon. As he says, the Flamingo pool in Axminster is brilliant; I take my daughter swimming there, and the volunteers who work there are fantastic. Given that he not only knows the Flamingo pool but has LED Community Leisure facilities in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman will know that we must do everything we can to help local authorities to apply for any funding that is available.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. Does he recognise the good work that levelling-up funding has done, and the fact that so many people and many councils can take advantage of it? Does he also endorse the view that whatever party may be in government in the future, it should be an integral part of the funding structure of every council in the United Kingdom?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of 500 bids for levelling-up funding, only 111 were successful, and I am mindful of the 389 that involved so much work on the part of council officers. The Minister may correct me if I have got the number slightly wrong, but that is my understanding. We should remember that councils are not well staffed; in fact, they have many vacancies, because they are constantly having to cut staff numbers.

When the Conservatives talked of levelling up in their 2019 manifesto, they were talking to communities that were crying out for just that, but many of the east Devon coastal communities that I represent have been disappointed. Let me draw an analogy with a cream tea. In Devon, if someone talks about adding toppings to a scone, we immediately think “cream first”, and when someone talks about levelling up, we immediately think “investment in our communities”. Little did we know that in both cases, what the Conservatives actually meant was “jam tomorrow”.

The Government’s approach of encouraging councils to use reserves and capital receipts to subsidise their revenue expenditure is unsustainable. Let us take, for example, the recent use by Devon County Council of £7.8 million of clawback money, which it had received from BT in connection with the provision of broadband internet. Rather than using that money as intended—to extend the provision of broadband to rural areas—the council used it to close its deficit. That got it through the 2023-24 financial year, but what will happen next March when there is no payout from BT, and what will happen to the thousands of my constituents who struggle to access the internet, which in the 21st century is an essential utility?

In the first round of levelling-up funding, the south-west region was ranked ninth out of 12 regions of the UK for the amount of funding received. It amounted to just £23 per person, which is less than the price of a single railway ticket from Honiton to Plymouth. We might as well buy a round of ice creams with the money, given how far levelling-up funding for east Devon will not stretch. The west country received less than 8% of all levelling-up funding from round 1. Even London received more than half that proportion, despite the fact that it was London’s levels of wealth and infrastructure to which other regions of the UK were supposed to be levelled up.

Given that we are talking about the coast, let me draw another analogy, this time with building sandcastles. If my eldest child had a bucketful of sand and my youngest child had half a bucket, I would expect levelling up to enable them both to have full buckets with which to make grand sandcastles. Instead, what we seem to have found under this Conservative Government is that levelling up has meant that children have to make sandcastles on east Devon’s beaches by half-filling their buckets, and anyone who lives locally will know that that will be with pebbles. If we are lucky, central Government will give us a flag to go on top, provided that we accept that the flag will have to have a blue tree on it.

East Devon District Council has submitted a bid in each round of the levelling-up fund since I have been the MP for Tiverton and Honiton. Had it been successful, the bid for the Axe valley would have supported £15 million-worth of projects. It would have transformed Seaton seafront and provided new opportunities for decent jobs. East Devon District Council was looking to provide three new employment sites: in Colyford Road and Harepath Road in Seaton, and at Cloakham Lawns in Axminster. Together, these could have provided around 3,000 square metres of employment space and created up to 140 decent jobs for local communities. However, rather than choosing this proposal or, indeed, the absolutely essential proposal for a town centre relief road in Cullompton, which was submitted by Mid Devon District Council, the Government chose to support Dinan Way in Exmouth. I do not doubt the merits of that proposal, but the costs of Dinan Way have ballooned.

Devon County Council’s cabinet met earlier today. It considered a successful bid to round 1 of the Government’s levelling-up fund, which awarded over £15.5 million for Destination Exmouth. East Devon District Council put in additional funding, as did other local councils, making a local contribution of £1.75 million. We learned today that the gateway project around the station in Exmouth will not go ahead, and that roughly £4.4 million that had been earmarked for schemes to help with active travel will be shelved. Instead, the more than £4 million will be rolled into the cost of the bypass in Dinan Way to offset the inflation that we have seen since the bid was submitted. If decisions around that investment had been made locally, we might have made different decisions, and we may have prioritised the funding and investment differently.

An increasing proportion of east Devon’s communities are older, which is particularly true of coastal towns and villages. An ageing population is increasing the complexity of the care required. In Sir Chris Whitty’s “Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report: Health in an Ageing Society”, published last October, he wrote specifically about the tendency of older people to retire and move to coastal areas, such as east Devon. He said:

“We’ve really got to get serious about the areas of the country where ageing is happening very fast, and we’ve got to do it now. It’s possible to compress the period of time that people spend in ill health...because otherwise we will end up with large numbers of people leading much more dependent lives.”

His report says:

“Providing services and environments suitable for older adults in these areas is an absolute priority”.

Sir Chris Whitty says that, specifically, we need policies to reduce disease and disability, and to help people to exercise, eat well and stay fit.

A report written in February this year by Beccy Baird from the King’s Fund calls for a radical refocusing of health and care, with primary care and community services at its core. It says that

“progress has been hampered by an incorrect belief that moving care into the community will result in short-term cash savings. Other factors include a lack of data about primary and community services leading to a ‘cycle of invisibility’”.

Baird talks about

“urgent challenges such as A&E waiting times and planned care backlogs becoming the priority for politicians tempted by quick fixes instead of fundamental improvement.”

In the face of that, the proposed closure of one whole wing of Seaton Hospital makes absolutely no sense to me or the constituents I represent, as I have said to various Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care, and to the Prime Minister himself at Prime Minister’s questions.

How can we expect this Conservative Government to level up in respect of complicated services, such as health and social care, if they cannot even level up potholes? The annual local authority road maintenance—or ALARM—report reveals that the average cost of filling in a pothole is £46, which rises to over £70 for a pothole that is filled on a reactive basis, rather than having been planned. On my summer tour, constituents told me that they see repair vans coming to respond to a request to patch up a single pothole, rather than dealing with the whole road. Round 1 of the levelling-up fund awarded the west country £23 per head. That is the equivalent of half of one pothole filled per person. It is no wonder that when we drive in and out of Devon’s craters, we sometimes think we are on the moon.

I contend that the levelling-up concept was designed to win over marginal seats in the midlands and the north of England in the run-up to the 2019 general election. Following that election, it has become apparent to the Conservatives that their 2019 electoral big tent has been shredded by the successive storms of partygate, the interregnum ruled over by the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and the crumbling infrastructure of our coastal communities, including those in east Devon. It will take Liberal Democrat influence in the next Parliament to devolve and restore services to our communities in east Devon.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for bringing forward this important Adjournment debate about his area.

It might be helpful if I set the scene with a few facts and figures. I understand entirely the difficulty, the tensions and the problems for coastal and rural councils in delivering services. There is an additionality to cost that is often triggered by a heightening of the age demographic, as the hon. Gentleman said, and by the sparsity of communities. These are not great dense conurbations but small, picturesque villages and hamlets. They are attractive and they support our environment and make an area a lovely place in which to live, but it is not without challenge to deliver public services there. That is being experienced by a lot of councils in those areas.

That is why we listened carefully and closely to those who made representations to us during the evolution of the local government funding settlement. Pausing for a moment, I have made the point before to the hon. Gentleman that a record number of Members of Parliament from across the House came to see officials and me during the official consultation process, to advocate in the strongest possible terms on behalf of their areas. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) was one of them, but the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton was not. I politely say to him that if one is serious about trying to effect change, an Adjournment debate is an interesting platform on which to do it, but engagement in the proper channels of communication and consultation can often bring forward better results.

Let me run through a list of some successes in our part of Devon. They include: £15.7 million to help level up Exmouth, including the Dinan Way extension, which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned; up to £30 million from South West Water to improve water infrastructure in Sidmouth; £1.4 million to address flooding on the River Sid and River Otter; a new school to replace Tipton St John Primary; our incredible Nightingale Hospital, which is still open and still bringing down waiting lists in my constituency; and, up the line in mid-Devon, which the hon. Gentleman sometimes pretends he represents, Cullompton is getting a new railway station. Meanwhile, Lib Dem-led East Devon District Council failed even to apply for funding for swimming pools, even though it asked me to campaign for it. It is the Lib Dems who are failing the south-west, not the Conservatives.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Maybe the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is the sort of bloke who complains that he did not win the lottery even though he did not buy a ticket. How could he be expected to win the lottery? You have to be in it to win it.

Of course, not every council bid is going to be successful, but as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the dynamic effect of levelling up across the United Kingdom is being felt across communities, many of which had felt left behind, ignored, undervalued—call it what you will—by successive Governments of all stripes. If one talks to those in communities that are benefiting directly from the levelling-up initiative, the shared prosperity fund, the future high streets fund and others, there is a real sense of excitement about what can be done in partnership with the local authority, local businesses and the Government to deliver beneficial change.

Although I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon for setting out with such clarity the projects that have been delivered or part-funded, I am slightly annoyed, because he has stolen quite a lot of my remarks. He was a very distinguished local journalist, whose calls I used to relish taking—anything to get my views and thoughts on some local issue on the record. I now quiver slightly when my telephone rings and I see his name flashing, because I know he will ask for further things for his part of Devon and the wider county. He advocates at the heart of Government to ensure that his constituents and others, including those of Tiverton and Honiton, see the benefit of the UK Government’s commitment to levelling up.

We listened to local government and offered an additional £600 million in the local government finance settlement; I know that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is aware of that. East Devon District Council saw an increase in core spending power of 5.9%, making available a total of £17.4 million for 2024-25. Mid Devon District Council saw an increase of 5.9%, making available a total of £11.6 million, and the county got an increase in core spending power of 7.8%, which is an additional £56.8 million, making available a total of up to £788.8 million for Devon County Council in 2024-25. We have invested £15 billion in a suite of complementary levelling-up projects to help grow the economy, create jobs, improve transport, provide skills training and support local businesses. Perhaps more powerful than even those things, as powerful and efficacious as they are, is the civic pride that the investment lights up in areas such as his—a pride in seeing what can be done, and starting a process that, if successful and guided and managed well, can provide no end of opportunities.

Given the sorts of enterprises that the Minister just described levelling-up funding as being about, can he explain the decision to invest £50,000 in stone chess tables in north-west England?

There is a rubric for taking decisions. The Department’s levelling-up initiative is, of course, handled by the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my excellent hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young). Each scheme is judged against fixed criteria; if it meets those criteria, it goes into the next round and can ultimately be successful.

I am afraid that I am not in a position to comment on individual schemes, whether successful or not, or on why they have been successful or not. That is something that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton would need to take up with the Under-Secretary, who always makes himself available to colleagues from across the House to discuss the exciting levelling-up initiative.

By my figures, £94.5 million of levelling-up funding has been allocated to Devon, excluding through legacy programmes, and that is in addition to significant long-term devolved funding and powers that we estimate to be worth up to £27 million, so I dispute as a matter of core principle the idea that the hon. Gentleman was trying to posit in my mind, and the mind of the House, that this Government and my party take for granted his part of Devon, or that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon—or indeed any other seat where we have a long history of representation. The Conservative party is a one nation party or it is nothing. We represent the views and aspirations of millions of people. It is why we have been the most successful political party, trying to do our best where we can for all our communities.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the terms of reference for levelling up have evolved since it was instigated. It was initially seen as primarily the preserve of post-industrial northern towns, but increasingly we see its power in our rural and coastal communities too. I have set out the figures on Devon’s success with levelling-up proposals; the county is doing incredibly well. Some £16 million in round-two levelling-up funding has been allocated for Destination Exmouth, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon mentioned. East Devon District Council received £1.8 million from the United Kingdom shared prosperity fund. East Devon will also benefit from the fact that the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership was the recipient of £35.4 million from the Getting Building Fund programme for 2020 to 2022. The community ownership fund has been very powerful in areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s, as it has in mine. It supports initiatives that are of value, including sport centres, arts venues and precious community spaces.

The hon. Gentleman lost me, I have to say, in his speech. At first, I was building sandcastles with half a bucket. He then told us that the beach I was on had pebbles, so that would be a pebble castle, not a sandcastle. I was not entirely sure whether I was putting my jam or the cream on the top or the bottom of the scone. I confess, as I represent the Blackmore vale, the land of the small dairies as described by Thomas Hardy, that I always view cream as a substitute for butter. It is the glue that holds down the jam, so one always puts the cream on first, and tops it with jam, not the other way around. I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman was putting his cream or his jam, but I hope he was not putting it on his children or the beach, or in their buckets or all over their spades.

We then had the ad hominem comments about how life is always so much better under the Liberal Democrats, these little rays of buoyant sunshine that fleetingly shine through the clouds of the south-west from time to time, only to disappear behind the broken promises of their tuition fee pledge—and I have little or no doubt that the same will happen again.

This debate allows me to mention something else. I appreciate that this is nothing to do per se with the hon. Gentleman, but he extolled to the House, as his party often does, the sanctity of the Liberal Democrats, who have some sort of higher public calling. We had elections to Dorset Council last week, a neighbouring authority. A lot of people were saying to me how much better the roads are in Dorset than in Devon; we are very happy to exchange contractor details if necessary. One of the most distasteful aspects of last week’s campaign was that a senior member of the hon. Gentleman’s party—the leader, I am told, of a neighbouring authority—spent quite a lot of time telling people, on the doorstep, that a Conservative party candidate had stage 4 lung cancer, was unlikely to see his term out, and would possibly not be as attentive as possible to his public duties as a result of having to receive chemotherapy.

That gentleman, who had served his community steadfastly for years, lost his seat. That is the democratic process, and I make no complaint about it. However, I have to say something that, by God, I have been waiting some years to say this from this Dispatch Box: I will take no lessons on the qualitative assessment, usually self-made by those in the hon. Gentleman’s party, that somehow it is better than mine in instinct and delivery, and in its definition of “public service”. What I have just relayed to the House has come from more than one reliable source. I just hope that his party enjoys its temporary victory in Dorset Council; I am not entirely sure that it is the sort of victory I would have enjoyed.

Let me turn back to the matters at hand. In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman has spoken for his community, and I am grateful to him for doing so. I hope that I have given him, the House, his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon the figures and facts. I absolutely underscore our commitment to the hon. Gentleman’s area, to the whole south-west, and to any and all of our communities in the UK where need is identified, and where the good offices of His Majesty’s Government can be deployed to help things along.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the local government funding settlement in the round being more bespoke and digital, rather than analogue; it must also take account of the times and demands, given that, as he and I have discussed, there has been a change in the demographics in his part of Devon and elsewhere in the south-west. We are committed to doing just that in the next Parliament. If I am in post then, I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House. If, cross party, we can find a solution that holds water, can withstand scrutiny and can sustain local government, and all the good work that it seeks to do, for the next 10, 15 or 20 years, rather than having short-term fixes, the landscape of local government and public service delivery for our communities will be very much improved. I hope that my reply has been of help to him, and of interest to his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.