It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to stand here and discuss how we can promote economic growth across the east of England. Clearly that is one of my priorities as the Member for Clacton—a place my hon. Friend probably only inadvertently left off his list of great towns of the east.
Nationally, our economy is growing. At last, we are beginning to say goodbye to austerity and are getting the country back on track. However, while national economic growth is without doubt welcome, some communities are being left behind. Once such community is my constituency of Clacton. As we begin to discuss the future of our economy, we must ensure that no community is left behind. I was encouraged to hear the Prime Minister argue the same in her conference speech last week.
I am here today to offer my thoughts on how we can be more inclusive as the economy grows. By way of further context, in 2013, my local authority, Tendring District Council, published an excellent economic development strategy. But in its pages was the somewhat troubling assertion:
“While there are some excellent businesses and highly resourceful residents locally, the district’s economy is not performing as well as it could—employment, job numbers and business formation have…been static or shrinking in recent years.”
In a former life as the cabinet member for regeneration and inward investment at Tendring District Council, I saw at first hand how eager our council officers were to correct that situation. I also saw how support for businesses can pay tremendous dividends in terms of economic growth. As I have said in previous speeches on the economy, in that role I prided myself on being able to make cash grants of up to £150,000 available to businesses in, and coming to, Tendring, so that they could grow, flourish and create inward investment. Many businesses did flourish thanks to that funding from the SME growth fund, which I introduced—business such as Nantmor Blinds, based in Clacton-on-Sea, which received a grant to assist with the purchase of an auto louvre machine. It also enabled it to hire new staff. In its own words, Nantmor Blinds said it was
“blown away by Tendring District Council’s hard work and determination.”
To date, the SME growth fund in Tendring has supported businesses, created 20 full-time jobs and leveraged over £200,000 of private investment intro the district. I am delighted to say that thanks to that success, the scheme is being widened and extended to 2020.
Clearly, in my area, local government support is truly there for businesses. I have no doubt that that is the case across the east of England. We must ensure that that continues and expands to national support. Nevertheless, and despite our enthusiasm, something continues to prevent businesses from really committing themselves, and the prosperity they bring, to Tendring. That obstacle, which has been mentioned before and will be mentioned again and again, is the quality of our local infrastructure. In my view, a country’s economy will only ever be as good as its roads, rails and ports, and we are no exception in that regard. I have often argued in this place—some might say far too often—that there is a need to improve the connection to overlooked areas such as the Clacton constituency. As a regular commuter myself, I know that it takes far too long for my constituents to travel to the capital and vice versa. I have said it before and I will say it again: the 69-mile journey often takes the best part of one hour and 40 minutes—that is nonsense. Without more investment in our local transport infrastructure, I believe that we will limit the incentive for people and businesses to move to our area. That would mean that my district would continue to be excluded from the strong national economic growth, which is an unacceptable outcome.
Moreover, as I have said before, if we are to do our bit to tackle the housing crisis, we must improve our transport infrastructure before any major new housing developments break ground. We are leading the way with our garden community developments. We simply cannot build more dwellings without first making it easy to occupy, live in and work from them. Investing more in transport would do that.
That is why I will continue to push my “70 in 60” campaign at every opportunity. It aims for the people of Clacton to be able to cover the nearly 70 miles to London in less than 60 minutes, which is not an unrealistic proposition when we look at similar rail services in the area. For example, commuters to Ipswich cover the journey in about 70 minutes, and let us not forget that people can travel the 52 miles from London to Colchester in 58 minutes, only to crawl the final 18 miles to Clacton in about half an hour—on a good day. That clearly has a lot to do with the quality of infrastructure between Colchester and Clacton, compared with the main line to Ipswich, so we should change that.
When we commit cash to infrastructure in such a way, businesses get excited and want to invest, thereby laying the foundations for future economic growth, and I have been shown that clearly by my past experience and conversations I have had as the Member of Parliament for Clacton. If we are to promote economic growth in the east of England, we must adopt the “infrastructure first” mantra everywhere and ensure that our region has the best transport links going.
I therefore welcome the formation of Transport East, a forum that now meets regularly. It will be the vehicle for the delivery of a collective vision for transport and wider infrastructure for all communities in the east of England. Its formation is certainly a positive step. It will lead to the creation of a truly joined-up transport network that does not exclude any of our communities from infrastructure improvements, which are a precursor of economic growth. The forum will also help us to secure vital investment in future infrastructure. I encourage the Government to engage with Transport East in whatever way they can.
To turn to the roads, I ask the Government to look favourably on the application for RIS2—second road investment strategy—funding for the new A120, which will reduce pressure on existing roads used by residents of the Clacton constituency. Improving that road, which runs across the east of England from Stansted airport to Harwich, would also help move goods more quickly and deliver a boost to the local economy. Furthermore, upgrading that strategically important road is an essential precursor to further unlocking Essex’s economic potential, along with the wider east of England region.
That brings me back to the point of the debate. The east of England is a unique region, with strong economic growth prospects, thanks to places such as Cambridge, Peterborough, Ipswich, Stansted airport, Luton airport, Harwich and Felixstowe, Colchester, Waveney, Southend-on-Sea and, of course, the sunshine coast of the Clacton constituency—I get them all in. However, if we do not have first-rate infrastructure, and cannot successfully and efficiently link those economic sub-units together, we will not get the best out of the east of England. We will therefore not maximise our economic potential, and certain communities will continue to be left behind.
To conclude, I return to the economic development strategy to which I referred earlier. Despite the troubling conclusions drawn about Tendring in 2013, it was also argued that the area has the potential for growth which could create thousands of jobs. Good will and hard work from our council has allowed us to start unlocking that potential, and I am proud of our record so far. Real and sustained investment in our infrastructure, however, would allow us to deliver such results quicker. I have no doubt that, in the same way, there will be no shortage of good will and hard work throughout the east of England. To match that, we must now ensure that good infrastructure is in place across the region. That is how we will promote economic growth for all communities in the east of England.
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