Text of Jack Brereton MP's speech to Westminster Hall, 1.12.2020:
Watch the full debate here: https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/0ba59eed-7be2-4fb9-b319-08a00bdef6fa#player-tabs
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s levelling-up agenda and post covid-19 economic recovery in North Staffordshire Potteries towns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. Covid-19 has hit the world hard, particularly north Staffordshire. I want to thank all the health and care workers, who have done, and continue to do, so much to care for those who have fallen victim to covid, often at considerable personal risk. They have our enduring gratitude—our key worker heroes in the fight against covid-19. I also thank those who have been working throughout the pandemic, keeping vital services going. They are heroes, too. Teachers, lecturers and classroom assistants are keeping schools open, ensuring our children continue to be supported and to receive the education they need.
Coronavirus has impacted our economy, particularly sectors such as hospitality, as well as many supply chains, such as tableware manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent. We must look to the future and hope in confidence that we can defeat this virus and return to a path of economic growth, greater opportunity and increased prosperity. Stoke-on-Trent is on the up and we must keep it on the up, redoubling the efforts that were long overdue even before covid struck. With the incredible scientific progress on vaccines and more rapid testing, we live with hope that the post covid-19 era is just months away.
We know from the end of the first lockdown that Stoke-on-Trent was one of the quickest to return to normal footfall and sale levels, second only to Derby in the midlands. We want to see that again, as soon as it is safe to do so. We have seen one of the highest covid rates in November. Thankfully, it has now already started to reduce significantly, and is down by 21%. Hopefully, by continuing these efforts, we will be able to leave tier 3 very soon; we hope at the first review on 16 December.
Stoke-on-Trent is a city made up of six historic pottery towns, each of which has its own high street to revive and support in the months and years ahead.
Similarly, across the whole of north Staffordshire, from the moorlands to Newcastle, myriad communities in towns and villages form a total catchment of nearly half a million people. I deliberately called today’s debate on the towns, because they all need levelling up as a whole area. I recognise that might sound challenging.
In July 2013, the BBC News website ran an article by Matt Lee, entitled, “Is Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘six towns mentality’ holding it back?”. My answer to that question, then and now, is firmly, “No”, but it is always good to remind the Government that Stoke-on-Trent is a city of six pottery towns. Although it is, of course, vital to have a strong city centre—something that the city centre business improvement district and other key partners are working hard to deliver—it is essential that the character of our historic pottery towns, of which people are rightly proud, does not disappear.
The six towns mentality that the BBC reported on with such curiosity in 2013 is not something we are ashamed of. Indeed, it partly resulted in the Labour administration that the BBC reported on at the time being swept from power, because of its blatant attempts to downgrade our towns to mere suburbs. All our towns across north Staffordshire play a key role in building a stronger post-covid recovery. I am particularly focused today on the two pottery towns in my constituency, Longton and Fenton, but I will start with cross-city issues that impact the whole of the Potteries.
While recovering from covid is important, unfortunately many of the challenges we face predate it. We are one of the most regionally imbalanced countries, and I am delighted that the Government have recognised the necessity of levelling up our country with the announcement last week of the £4 billion levelling-up fund. I assure the Minister that there is no greater case for investment than locally in Stoke-on-Trent.
Across Stoke-on-Trent, seven wards have been identified as left behind by the all-party group for “left behind” neighbourhoods and Local Trust, three of them in my constituency. Stoke-on-Trent now has the 12th highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods on multiple measures out of 317 council districts in England, up one place since 2015. We are not even level on a regional basis, let alone nationally. Health comparators put Stoke-on-Trent as worst in the region in terms of life expectancy and a number of other health indicators. Gross value added per head in Stoke-on-Trent trails behind the regional and national averages considerably. Earnings, likewise, are lower by some margin. Gross weekly pay for full-time workers in the city averages £501.20 whereas it is £550.80 across the west midlands and £587 nationally. As a recent levelling-up report by Onward showed, gross disposable household income declined between 1997 and 2018, but less so than in most other deprived areas because of gains in productivity.
One factor influencing wages is that levels of academic qualification in Stoke-on-Trent are significantly worse than in other parts of the country. It is vital that more is done to improve access and to push up aspirations. Only 22.5% of people in Stoke-on-Trent have a qualification of NVQ level 4 or above, lagging considerably behind the national average of 40.3%. This is despite an excellent higher education offer in north Staffordshire, including at the University of Keele and Staffordshire University. These are challenges we must overcome if we are to recover stronger and to truly level up.
While there are challenges, there is much potential for improvement. Prior to the pandemic, we had seen some of the strongest economic growth of any city in the UK, with high new business start-up rates and retention rates. We also have a strong focus on growth sectors where we have great potential to succeed owing to our natural strengths, including advanced manufacturing and creative and digital industries.
For advanced manufacturing, it is vital that the bid for wave 2 of the Strength in Places fund for midlands advanced ceramics is successful. It would develop an advanced ceramics centre in north Staffordshire to create the high-skilled jobs that we need. The bid is led by Lucideon in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and the Midlands Industrial Ceramics Group, a consortium that includes companies such as Mantec Technical Ceramics in Longton in my constituency. A commitment from UK Research and Innovation will help catalyse private investment and level up opportunities.
In digital, we have huge potential to strengthen and attract new-tech firms. We already have the largest number of students in gaming and computer sciences in the country at Staffordshire University. Massive investment in fibre broadband that is being plugged directly into homes and businesses as we speak will see Stoke-on-Trent become the first gigabit-connected city in the country. This is an exciting opportunity to attract digital and tech companies to locate in our area, bringing skilled and well-paid jobs.
The key factor will be continuing to improve educational standards, and we need to support all our schools to continue to improve. I strongly believe that a proposed wave 14 free school for my constituency is part of this improvement and needs to be granted the support of the Government. The Florence MacWilliams Academy, which is named after a local mathematician and coding pioneer of worldwide renown, will boost local ambition and help more local pupils embark on academic and technical careers.
For some across north Staffordshire, the barrier is literally an issue in being able to get to college or work. The public transport network is woefully inadequate. There is heavy dependence locally on the car, which accounts for about 80% of journeys. This car dependency to access work, skills and leisure opportunities comes despite 30% of the city’s population having no access at all to a private vehicle. For those with no car and few public transport options, dreams and ambitions are severely limited. Indeed, the A500/A50, which we call locally the D road, is a classic piece of urban splintering for those without a car. The strategic network operates at around 110% of capacity and resembles a car park, with poor reliability at peak times.
Sadly, this congestion is mirrored on a local road network that has lacked real investment for decades, with three parts of the network now under ministerial direction due to air quality breaches. We face the unthinkable reality of having to implement harsh measures to improve air quality, which threatens jobs and livelihoods, when the focus should instead be on improving public transport.
Congestion is the main reason identified by local bus operators for the decline in our public transport. Even before covid, over the past decade bus journeys declined locally by a third. The combination of road congestion, lack of connectivity and the poor reliability of local buses inhibits businesses and housing investment, a compounded barrier to employment for people who already struggle to access employment opportunities and housing. The lack of cross-city transport options, even where there are bus routes, means that passengers are required to use multiple services, with unreliable journey times and no guarantee of connection. In addition, despite growth in rail nationally, this modal shift has been held back locally by a lack of infrastructure, not least the closure of much of the local rail network under Beeching, including the Stoke to Leek line.
North Staffordshire has not seen a single station reopen since the Beeching axe. In part, this has been due to the methodology for prioritising infrastructure spend. While large cities have seen stations reopen since Beeching, in north Staffordshire local services have got worse. As part of the west coast upgrade in 2005, Etruria was removed altogether, and services to Wedgwood and Barlaston were suspended indefinitely, never to return. Local services have been sacrificed for the benefit of slightly improved fast inter-city services. Such was the legacy of a city in decline under the Blair and Brown Governments.
What is needed is a transport revolution: a step change in our relationship with the car, and a properly integrated public transport system. The Government must commit to our bid for the Transforming Cities fund. We also need investment from the Restoring Your Railway programme, and the delivery of levelling-up funding that enhances public transport. The Transforming Cities fund will be the start of a journey towards more effective local public transport systems across north Staffordshire, where we see bus prioritisation and better integration of bus and rail. Feeder services into a multi-modal hub at Stoke station will ensure the greatest return on the Government’s investment in bringing High Speed 2 to Stoke-on-Trent. Already, one of our plans for Meir station has been given Government backing as part of the Restoring Your Railway programme. We want to see the Stoke to Leek line advancing, too, as well as the restoration of services at Wedgwood and a study into the options for light rail and restoring Etruria.
It is vital to ensure that all communities are connected to economic opportunities, and now is the time to invest in transport infrastructure, level up connectivity and access opportunities. Improved local public transport would support wider development in the area, unlocking unviable sites for housing and economic regeneration. We are keen to embrace the Ministry’s housing targets, and a new round of the Housing Infrastructure fund would help us mitigate substantial brownfield sites that are currently uneconomic due to remediation costs. To be effective, any community infrastructure levy must reflect the varied nature of housing markets across the country.
I very much thank the Minister, and welcome the support being given by the Government to areas such as Stoke-on-Trent through last week’s announcement of a £100 million brownfield fund. Funding is essential to remediate sites and get development off the ground, particularly where values are challenging. We need to realise the growth and the economic successes witnessed through the hugely successful ceramic valley enterprise zone. That success has seen brownfield sites transformed, supporting businesses and jobs, and this needs to be echoed on our high streets and in our town centres.
However, there is a huge potential stumbling block to levelling up in many Government funding programmes, which is the 25% local contribution requirement, as well as the lack of resources at a council level to make schemes shovel-ready. My heart drops whenever I see local contribution levels I know we do not have the money for or will struggle to meet. Frequently, the city council resources relied upon to do this work will be limited to one or two officers. The council tax base is the second lowest in the country after Hull, and many resources were reprioritised over a decade ago to meet the costs of social care.
We cannot level ourselves up, and I ask the Government to please look again at the implications of hefty local contribution levels and the lack of revenue support for left-behind areas. The most disadvantaged areas need a new formula where support is provided to make schemes shovel-ready and the expected local contribution is reduced or waived, otherwise there will be no point in bidding for levelling-up programmes in the first place. The National Audit Office has already made this point in relation to certain bus funds that required a substantial local contribution and therefore did not reach the communities that needed them most.
In Stoke-on-Trent South, Fenton is undergoing several improvements, with new housing and a better public realm in the historic Albert Square. The city council has invested £28.7 million in Fenton, bringing forward derelict brownfield sites for new housing and restoring the iconic square.
I am delighted that the Cultural Recovery fund was able to offer support to Fenton town hall. Significant work is being done to bring the important historic building back into use following a huge local campaign by the community. It now houses a whole range of businesses and organisations that are helping to bring life back into Fenton. Restoke, a local performing arts organisation, is bidding for Arts Council funding to bring the historic town hall ballroom back into use for the creative enjoyment of the whole community and to bring together people from all backgrounds. It is essential that we secure this funding.
I am keen to see the station reopen at Fenton Manor, with the reopening of the Stoke to Leek line. Fenton is sometimes called the forgotten town, not least because Arnold Bennett excluded it from his “Stories from the Five Towns”. I will continue to ensure that Fenton gets the attention it deserves—lobbying to get Fenton Manor station reopened is part of that.
In Longton, which has the biggest high street in my constituency and the second largest in Stoke-on-Trent, significant support is needed to get the town thriving again. Longton has a proud history as a centre of fine china within the Potteries, and there has been a recent renaissance in ceramic design and manufacture locally, especially the recent successful rejuvenation of Duchess China 1888.
However, Longton is also an area of multiple deprivation and the conservation area is rated very bad on the at-risk register. Many of the industries the town once relied on have closed or moved, and competition from out-of-town and online has hit the high street very hard. Even pre-covid, Longton suffered from very high vacancy levels—double the national average—and many properties are in a very poor state of repair. Thankfully, Longton town hall was saved by the community from the threat of demolition in the mid-1980s and has recently seen investment by the city council and now has a sustainable future as a local centre and hireable space. The upper floor will also receive funding through the Getting Building fund to be converted into a shared workspace.
Longton as a whole has not yet received the level of attention needed to restore it to its former glory, yet its potential for growth as an authentic and liveable town is obvious, even after decades of decline. In 2017, we secured a pioneering heritage action zone from Historic England to cover Longton and the bottle ovens of the Potteries. While this has started to make progress, the original HAZ seems to have been slightly eclipsed by the later high street HAZs across the country in getting the job of town centre restoration done.
The Longton HAZ needs a new boost of investment and the city council has secured Partnership Schemes in Conservation Areas funding totalling £900,000, in partnership with Historic England and property owners. This is a positive step, but greater ambition for securing investment must deliver a much greater scale of change. It was a huge disappointment when we missed out previously on high street and town funding. We want to attract new residential and economic uses, whether digital and tech firms or creative studios. Attracting these new uses can provide a strong future for Longton and help better sustain the retail offer.
There is huge potential to convert empty high street space, with converted historic buildings providing quirky spaces in which to live and work, but incentives are needed for these conversions to happen when costs to owners often outweigh the return. Similarly, brownfield town centre and former factory sites would be great spaces for new commercial and residential use, but we need support to address the deliverability challenges.
Like in Fenton, where public realm work has been delivered, we need to invest in making the physical environment in Longton more appealing, which would boost footfall and better stitch the town together. Gladstone is the finest single site of bottle ovens that survives in the UK and is the greatest driver of tourism footfall in Longton. Covid has hit museums very hard indeed, and it is vital that significant community assets should be supported and that our bid for covid emergency funding should succeed. It is by preserving our unique industrial heritage that we will continue to attract today’s leading international ceramicists—practitioners who could base themselves anywhere in the world—to Stoke-on-Trent as the authentic world capital of ceramics.
I hope we will see a wider deal to level up Longton—a deal that will help to integrate the town centre better, with investment in public spaces and the bringing back into use of empty historic buildings. Together, that will encourage footfall, helping to get our fantastic market traders and retailers back on track. Improvements to Longton could be part of a wider towns deal, through the levelling-up fund, that invests in improvements for a number of our towns across north Staffordshire that need support. Properly restored, Longton will attract new residents, visitors, shoppers and businesses, as the finest preserved example of a Potteries town, with the authentic skyline of chimneys and bottle ovens.
We continue to face more short-term sacrifices to control the pandemic, and work to get Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire out of tier 3. We should be under no illusions about the huge hits to our economy and mental health. I firmly believe in delivering funding now for projects that will give the Potteries a brighter future and will mean that we can recover to be stronger than before. That involves some tough asks of Government—that they deliver on their promise to level up opportunities across the entire country. The Government must invest in the areas that need it most, and not just cement the position of those that already have. There is so much optimism for the future, and after decades in which we have been ignored last week’s spending statement has renewed our hope that Stoke-on-Trent’s time has finally come.