Gareth Streeter is a Councillor in Croydon and a former Parliamentary Candidate. He grew up in the West Country, where he has campaigned extensively for 20 years.
As another spending review – fuelled by talk of a Brexit dividend and a renewed commitment to public spending – draws near, the usual pleas for pet projects and priorities are again entering the public arena.
A number of exciting pledges around education, the NHS, and policing have already been announced over the summer, and it’s clear that the direction of travel is centring around a renewal of One-Nation conservatism and a commitment to providing opportunities for Britain’s most vulnerable inhabitants.
Almost inevitably, resulting conversation starts to drift toward the Conservative Party’s offer to the North of England. This is both welcoming and encouraging – from the Northern Powerhouse to a revolution in school standards, a genuine commitment to broadening our UK-wide appeal has been one of the most inspiring strands of Conservative Government since our return to power in 2010.
However, as we approach the spending review and the surrounding political narrative it will shape, it is vital that another often-neglected part of England receives its fair share of attention and investment. Namely, the South West.
Often lumped together in discussions on the ‘South’, the South West does not share the wealth, infrastructure, or connectivity of its Eastern counterpart. While many picture the region as the backdrop to their idyllic childhood holidays (which it still supplies a-plenty) those of us who live there or grew up there know that this it is not the full story.
Rural and coastal poverty is every bit as biting as urban poverty, and research suggests that 600,000 working age people across the region find themselves subject to it.
But there is also an acute political motive for ensuring our Western-most region receives its share of attention. We’ve all enjoyed recent polls which suggest that the much needed ‘Boris bounce’ is steering us toward a Conservative majority at the next election – but thanks to an unwelcome rise in support for the Liberal Democrats, there is a real danger that this could come at the expense of some of our MPs across Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall.
What Liberal Democrat campaigns lack in integrity, they often make up for in precision and effectiveness. Buoyed by their recovery in the polls and success in recent local elections, Lib Dem strategists will be setting a strong collection of South West seats in their sites.
However, with the forthcoming spending review, we have a real opportunity to show and strengthen our commitment to the Westcountry, and halt the Liberal revival before it has truly begun. Here are just 5 suggestions that the Government should consider:
Introduce a rural bus route guarantee – Even without pressures on local authority budgets, rural bus services were always likely to decline in usage. However, for those that do rely on them they are an absolute lifeline. While the DfT has already provided important funding to keep services running, there is now scope for a modest increase which can be packaged as a pledge to ensure every community is served by a bus at least twice a day.
Continue to invest in high-speed broadband – While the words ‘gig-economy’ are not always music to the ears of policy makers, the South West has an opportunity to play host to the sector’s bright side. I regularly come across self-employed marketers, website designers, journalists, and PR consultants who would love to make their home in the South West, but would struggle with a patchy and slow broadband service. Recent surveys have shown that the South-West has the worst broadband service in England but that people in Dorset, Devon, and Somerset would value an improvement the most. Government investment in high-speed broadband is already revolutionising the local economy – but the spending review present a great opportunity to hammer home our commitment.
Turbo-charge tourism – While some claim that Brexit has already damaged Britain’s tourism sector, there is little evidence to support this. The opportunity, however, is huge. In Government, the Conservatives have already done much to revive coastal communities with targeted funding – but now it’s time to announce a new headline figure for the Coastal Communities Fund. Not only will this make a tangible difference to the communities that need the boost – it will send a clear message to tourists everywhere that Brexit Britain is open for business.
Ensure a West Country voice in fisheries policy – The Common Fisheries Policy has been one of the most controversial aspects of EU membership for decades, and almost everyone accepts that returning control of policy making to the UK is essential once we Brexit. However, in the run up to our departure, most of the debate has focused around protecting the needs of Scottish fishers – a community which has an entire devolved administration to fight their corner. The needs of South-West fishing communities also need to have a voice in the setting of future policy, and Defra should formalise the process of securing one. There would be real merit in the Government appointing a representative – perhaps a West Country MP – to advocate the needs of South West fishers in the setting of future policy.
Create a long-term road map for agriculture – The Government has played a blinder by guaranteeing agricultural subsidies until 2022. However, as we constantly hear, business needs certainty in order to plan effectively and in this respect, farmers are businesspeople like any others. If the event of a no-deal Brexit, a road map on the future of agriculture beyond the next three years must be top of the agenda.
The South West of England, like every other part of the UK, does better with the Conservatives. But in the same way that the Liberal Democrats have chosen to champion project fear in their national narrative, we should expect an onslaught of highly localised scaremongering campaigns to be unleashed in the West Country as an election draws near.
By highlighting our excellent record, ensuring a fair slice of the pie in the spending review, and intentionally crafting a narrative for the South West of England, we can ensure that a future Conservative majority Government does not have to come at the expense of hard-working and effective MPs in Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset.