Last week I took up a position on a newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group for the South West. Supported by the Local Enterprise Partnership in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly as well as Devon, Somerset and Dorset, the aim is to promote coordination for the economic benefit of the westcountry.
Being a peninsula like Cornwall creates unique economic challenges. Our industries have to transport their goods further to market which adds costs. Recruiting staff can be more of a challenge for business. A lack of profitability means that average wages can be lower. When it comes to further transport infrastructure, the further west you go the fewer MPs there are left making the case for investment, and government departments like the Treasury often fail to understand the dynamics of local economies. For all of these reasons, the case for Cornwall and economic investment in Cornwall has to be made repeatedly and consistently and the new Parliamentary Group we have established will help to do so in a sustained.
One of the most important emerging policy areas that we need to get right is in the sphere of the new Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU structural funds when we leave the EU. I campaigned to leave the EU and I want us to decide our own regional policy and have the freedom to design our own grant schemes that really work for places like Cornwall. However, with the power to set our own policies of economic regeneration comes the responsibility to get it right. Whitehall has largely abdicated responsibility for economic development in poorer areas in recent years and there is a danger that it will fail to step in and occupy the space left through a lack of knowledge and experience.
This government has a clear priority to develop more balanced growth across our country and that is why there will be a new Shared Prosperity Fund. The whole purpose of the new fund is to support industry in poorer parts of the country and to ensure that we see new industries and better paid jobs in places like Cornwall, rather than just seeing prosperity collect around the Home Counties. That requires a culture change in some Whitehall departments like the Treasury. They should not just favour the financial services industry in London at the expense of the rest of us. As a country we need to learn to value industries that make things and produce balanced growth across our nation.
As the new fund is developed, I want to ensure that it is directed to areas based on their needs rather than administered as a centralised pot in London and directed to projects in already wealthy areas that are sometimes deemed to give a higher return on the Treasury’s economic models. The EU funds were welcome but were also cumbersome and overly restrictive. They did not allow support for industries like tourism which were seen as out of fashion and they did not generally support harbour infrastructure. Applicants often contorted their bid in order to fit arbitrary EU criteria rather than do what they knew would work and be able to feel confident that they could access the support they needed. We can do better if we design our own schemes but only if we force Whitehall departments to take their new role seriously.