CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you very much Mr. Chairman for calling me to speak in this debate. I think it is of supreme importance at the moment, and I will come on to why I think that is. I am going to use Plymouth as an example for the wider south west – for which I am afraid I make no apologies. Because much like the South West, I don’t think over the years we have talked about Plymouth enough in this place, and the effects of this are clear to see.
Plymouth was once an industrial powerhouse– centred of course on the Dockyard where tens of thousands of workers – welders, fabricators, ship builders and Unions shop stewards contributed more to this Nations security and heritage than Plymouth is ever credited with. This Military commitment – although diminished in numbers, continues to this day. And as it is today, Plymouth was also much more than just a military City: the harbour was used by merchant sailors for trade routes to London and all over the world, and transatlantic liners regularly used to depart Millbay.
But there is a feeling in the streets and communities of Plymouth today that should be represented in this place, that once the nature of a modern economy changes and the nation rightly or wrongly declines it’s focus on defence, that Plymouth has been forgotten, discarded after use if you like.
The South West Growth Charter lights a path to a vision of better things again. We will all speak on different parts of it that speak to us, but in my short time I wanted to speak on infrastructure and Government spend on the South West. Infrastructure is the catalyst for growth – there can be no doubt about it, and regions in transition need a fair deal from Government across all sectors.
Now every City’s representatives can come to this place and say that their City has been forgotten; but the evidence in Plymouth’s case is particularly stark. Take as example our transport spend is £219 per head compared against a cost of £1869 per head in London. Our public health spend for 2015 was £47 per head against a national average of £63 per head – despite being the most deprived area in the SW, it is also the most underfunded. Our cultural spend is £83 compared to £117 per head locally. I could go on. Why are Plymothians worth spending so much less on? It’s just not acceptable I’m afraid.
I have my own views on why this has happened. I do believe that one of our main jobs in this place, and I know I am not alone in this – is to make Government work for our Constituents, at the personal and local level, and I have my own views on how well this has been done in the past. Locally I never ceased to be surprised by the elected officials in Plymouth and the manner in which they carry on contrasts sharply with the professionalism of the Council staff who work so hard for Plymouth.
As elected officials, elections are our ‘appraisals’ if you like, from our bosses – the people. At every Election for many years now, local or national, the largest party has not been Labour, or the Conservatives, or even the Lib Dems. It has always been the ‘don’t cares’; those who do not vote. And I’m afraid the time has passed for blaming people for not voting. It is time in this place that we turned this argument on its head and recognised that we have to give people something to vote for; not chastise them for their lack of interest in us.
Plymouth is an ambitious City with gifted, ingenious people who can adapt like any other City to change. But government of all colours has simply not delivered for too many in our City – as evidenced in elections. That has to change.
So what do we do? We have an opportunity in this Parliament – almost the entire region is represented by the Party in Government.
The biggest most determining factor in economic growth for a region far from economic engines like London, is transport links. Big companies getting in and getting out of our region, providing the skilled jobs and professional development our ambitious talented people deserve. We cannot as a cohort continue to unequivocally support the Government without genuine ‘spade-in-the-ground’ investment in our transport infrastructure.
It is unacceptable for a region so large, so diverse and so productive as ours to be expected to survive on the rail link we currently have, irrespective of the Government’s plans elsewhere.
So I strongly congratulate the Peninsula Rail Task Force on their report into rectifying this, and I urge the Prime Minister and her team to read it very carefully indeed before committing to further investment elsewhere in the Country.
Politics is a team game, and it works both ways, both from us to the Government, but also from the Government to us. I support this PM in everything she does, as do my colleagues, but our commitment to make Government work for people in the South West must trump everything else. I firmly believe that a Conservative Government has done more of late for our region than has ever been done before. But we must let it be known that – if that line is crossed we must hold firm and hold together, and put our region first, else we continue this degradation of politics that we are all so keen to avoid.
It is not all bad by any stretch. That ‘job’s lag’ from a dockyard that employed 35,000 workers in its heyday, to 3,500 today has been filled by enterprising determined Plymothians who have created a buzzing local economy that just needs a bit more help from Central Government.
Similarly when it comes to Central Government there can be no doubt – the single biggest factor in improving the life chances of our Constituents is having a job, and in Plymouth the unemployment rate under this Gov’t has halved since 2010 – remarkable. Similarly the railway has had more investment in the last three years than it had in the previous 30 years.
But we must not take our foot of the gas, nor forget the very low base from which we started, as we try and change the economic fortunes of our region.
The South West Growth agenda is key to prosperity, which is key to improving the lives of our most vulnerable constituents – those in the forefront of all of our minds in this place. Let’s be more clever, let’s be more smart. Let’s act as a team – locally and regionally. Let’s give and take – if the Government wants us to accept an elected mayor to receive more investment then as much as I loathe bureaucracy and layers of Government, I loathe more the region being left behind by those regions that do accept it.
Because in my experiences Mr and Mrs Smith in Plymouth don’t give two hoots about who the elected mayor is, but they do care if the rubbish doesn’t get collected or the potholes don’t get filled in because their politicians were unable to reach an agreement with Government for funding.
Our future could well be brighter than our quite brilliant history, not only in Plymouth but across the region. But it won’t just happen, we have to seize it. I hope we can make real progress in the years ahead.