Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
When Jeremy Corbyn talks about ‘investing in infrastructure, jobs and housing’, I want to ask: How?
During Labour’s 13 years in power, there was little to celebrate, despite lots of talk and endless consultants’ reports. Don’t forget we’re still paying for the Private Finance Initiative-funded empty Fire Service HQs which John Prescott introduced, but were never operational because they simply didn’t work. Had anyone bothered to consult local fire services, billions of pounds would have been saved. Small wonder that Liam Byrne left a note in the Treasury saying ‘there’s no money left’.
This is what Labour loves: unwieldy top-down bureaucracies, which don’t listen to those who understand what communities want and need. Instead, ‘ordinary people’ must be dictated to.
A prime example was the eight Regional Development Agencies (the ninth was responsible to the London Mayor), launched in 1998, employing large numbers of expensive staff, with Chief Executives reportedly paid in excess of £300,000 a year. Funded by central government, their objective was to devise and implement economic development plans; between 2002 and 2011, alone, they were in receipt of £10 billion..
However, a study by accountants, PWC, in 2009 revealed that they were generating a mere £1 for every £1 invested and in 2012 the Coalition Government replaced them with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) which were closer to their communities and local business, providing greater insight to decision-making. They were also cheaper, without the huge salaries, expensive premises and bureaucracy of their predecessors, bringing a much tighter focus.
Conservative MPs, recognising the dearth of opportunities in the modern age in too many locations beyond London and the South East, were amongst the drivers for this fresh approach, supported by Government funding, to overcome decades of neglected infrastructure and training.
Recognised by Government as one of the best and most innovative, the New Anglia LEP is led by a voluntary board comprising business, education, and local authority leaders, transforming investment outcomes with ‘a sharp focus on activities to help grow jobs and remove barriers to growth for business’.
In just a few years, it is well on target to realise its ambitions to create 95,000 new jobs, 10,000 new businesses and 117,000 new homes in Norfolk and Suffolk by 2026. Awarded an extra £69 million in February, its Growth Deal fund has grown to £290m for capital project spending by 2021. The strategy is attracting significant private investment right across the region, reviving what was a largely stagnant economy.
As the cabinet member responsible for economic development at Suffolk County Council, I attended a number of meetings in the early stages, and the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of the original Chairman and his successor brought a fresh dimension to the public sector, overcoming initial scepticism. Their determination to deliver on their clear objectives, developing a very close working relationship with local authorities – both Labour and Conservative-led – encouraged the private sector to dust off their plans and engage with the process.
Relatively modest sums, provided by the LEP through a careful bidding process, unlocked – and continue to unlock – a range of new and dormant schemes. New training facilities to meet demand have also been at the top of the agenda.
For example, following an independent analysis of the potential benefits paid for by the LEP, Lowestoft and Ipswich will have new river crossings, to relieve congestion and release brownfield sites, with £150m awarded by Government to cover construction costs. Further contributions across the region include more than £50 million on road improvements and £10m for broadband, which is virtually non-existent in too many rural areas, inhibiting small businesses (including holiday lets) and the self-employed. Good internet access is crucial to converting redundant farm buildings for housing or into specialist business units, whether for the Arts, agriculture or the creative industries, which all thrive in a rural environment.
Millions have also been invested in a new construction industry training centre at Easton & Otley College, and a higher level education / training area at Kings Lynn, with a further £7m in energy, engineering and advanced manufacturing in facilities at West Suffolk College. A new aviation academy received £3.3m, with Ipswich and Lowestoft receiving £1.85m and £2.5m for, respectively, a new Innovation centre and Enterprise centre. Many other projects are in the process of delivery, with more in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca moved its global HQ to Cambridge in 2016 with a multi-million pound investment, ‘bringing together world class capabilities’ and in the last year have delivered over 130 collaborations with academic, healthcare and research partners. The city is an internationally renowned expanding hub for life sciences, with a further £35m being invested in a new home for growing enterprises.
All this activity is bringing new, well-paid, skilled jobs, but it is merely a small indication of what has been happening across the country as a whole during the last seven years, for which all those involved deserve enormous credit. But it wouldn’t have happened without the strong leadership of Government, business, local authorities and – crucially – the input from Local Enterprise Partnerships and Conservative MPs, who understand business.
We still have a housing shortage, but new housing follows jobs and jobs follow upgrading skills, and infrastructure improvements.
Beat that, Jeremy! Your vague promises have no substance; the Conservatives are already on the case and delivering long-overdue lasting benefits for ‘ordinary people’.