Selaine Saxby: The South West is a region of stark inequality

8 Sep

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.

“Levelling Up” must benefit the whole country. While plenty has been written discussing “Levelling Up the North”, far less attention has been given to what it means to “Level Up the South” and in particular the South West, the region I represent. This is perhaps because, taken as a whole, the South West sits around the average on many of the indicators of success that the levelling up agenda may target when compared to the rest of the UK.

But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that there is vast intra-regional inequality in the South West on a level barely seen elsewhere within the country. As I set out in a new report for the thinktank Onward today, this makes broad-brush regional comparisons and traditional indicators of success unhelpful in discussing the unique position of the South West, and the challenges we face in trying to grow the regional economy. A good example is employment: our unemployment is low in the South West, but this headline statistic hides the prevalence of part-time work (some 27.1 per cent of people) and the relative low pay of those at the bottom of the income spectrum, particularly the level of those on minimum wage.

Indeed, while some 90 per cent of constituencies in the South West have part-time employment above the UK average, the bottom 60 per cent of part-time workers in the income distribution in the South West earn less than their correspondingly-ranked part-time workers in every other region. This is despite the fact that workers here consistently work longer hours than in other regions like the South East. Importantly, this abundance of poorly paid, part-time work is driven by our area’s reliance on accommodation and food services, industries which were particularly hard hit during the pandemic.

In the South West, we also suffer poor digital connectivity, something I know well as Chair of the APPG on Broadband and Digital Communication, and poor physical connectivity, with few jobs within a reasonable drive of people’s homes. The number of jobs within Devon and Cornwall reachable within 60 minutes is two times below the median, and some five times below the median number of jobs within 90 minutes. With public transport, the picture is slightly better, but people in Devon and Cornwall can still reach some 37per cent fewer jobs than the median within 60 minutes on public transport, and 54 per cent below the median at 90 minutes.

This picture may be somewhat unfamiliar to those in the more urban conurbations in the South West, but to those of us in North Devon or other rural and coastal areas, often long distances from any city or motorway, these are very real concerns. With few jobs available within commuting distance, and connectivity in many places too poor to even consider a job requiring an average speed internet connection, people will continue moving away and our skills gap will widen further.

This complex picture of regional average versus intra-regional inequality is further reflected in skills. The South West is roughly average in the UK for qualifications successes, yet in Devon less than a quarter of 20-29 year-olds have a degree, despite the presence of Exeter and Plymouth. The picture is repeated in Cornwall, where the number is some 10 per cent below the national average of 35 per cent. With the South West’s over-reliance on a few low productivity and low wage sectors – retail, accommodation, and food services – this may not appear an obvious short-term problem, but left untackled it stands stark in the face of the Government’s Levelling Up ambitions.

The story of the South West is one of complex inequality that is not easily reflected in traditional interregional figures, particularly around the coast. If the Government is to truly make a difference and level up the country as a whole, the south west cannot be ignored, and indeed deserves a special focus in its own right given the unique situation within which it finds itself.

Selaine Saxby: Lib Dem-run North Devon Council declared a “climate emergency” in 2019. But has failed to do anything.

20 Aug

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “emergency” as “something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results.”

So why have so many local councils declared a Climate Emergency, which amounts to little more than a statement on their website? A Freedom of Information (FOI) request did not get me very far, with my local Liberal Democrat District Council merely saying:

“The Council’s Sustainability and Climate Officer for both North Devon Council and Torridge District Council confirms that they are currently working on a Carbon Action Plan for North Devon, therefore at this time the Council does not have one in place.”

This is the same Liberal Democrat council that declared a Climate Emergency in June 2019. As a councillor since May 2019, I remember the meeting well. I registered my own concerns at the time, and that as a good first step, maybe the air conditioning could be turned down.

Furthermore, our flag-waving Lib Dems have failed to reduce their own carbon emissions, failed to reduce their own energy consumption, failed to provide any incentives for electric cars, and failed to switch any of their fleet vehicles to electric.

I appreciate that our hardworking council officers have been very busy with the pandemic, and the staff have really done a fantastic job, but you would hope that the “Lead Councillor” responsible for the environment could have seen a way to at least install some solar panels.

Emergencies and crises by their very names invoke something of a helplessness in many as it seems to be someone else’s problem. But if we are to address climate change and achieve net zero, there is a need for everyone to feel they can take action now, and not wait for another unhelpful “plan”.

The pandemic taught us the importance of collaboration between local and national government. Devon County Council has also declared a climate emergency, and launched their own plan. But plans need to be actioned if they are to have any effect.

In North Devon, we have already done so much work towards addressing climate change, from increasing electric charging points to introducing the first rural e-scooter trial at our local further education college. However, because these improvements are not in the Liberal Democrat “plan”, they have dropped off the radar of progress.

If we are to encourage individuals that every step they take is important and matters, then we cannot ignore the good steps that people are already making, independent of any local authority “plan”.

There is more we could and should all be doing, and there is no need to wait for further “emergencies” to be declared or “plans” to be published. We can switch to renewables, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, use less electricity at home, recycle more, and all be a part of the solution. We need to share our individual successes so that everyone feels part of the solution.

That is not to say that there is no place for plans. For example, Amber Valley Borough Council has a great plan. We should not let people think they can only make a change if it is part of a plan.

I support Let’s Go Zero and in June wrote with Lord Knight of Weymouth to raise awareness of how tough the pandemic has been for children and for young people. According to NHS Digital, probable mental health disorders nearly doubled after the first lockdown. As we said at the time, the last thing children need is another crisis they feel powerless to change. We must flip the climate emergency into an opportunity for our young people to drive the change to a carbon zero UK.

Time is of the essence, and we need not reinvent the wheel. We should look where solutions currently exist, and work to implement them. UK100 brings together local authorities across the country to devise and, crucially, to implement plans for the transition to clean energy that are ambitious, cost effective, and garner support.

I have spoken at their events and seen how effective their solutions would be. I am a big supporter, and urge others to join. Their Knowledge Hub offers excellent ideas for how local leaders can work to hit net zero, which is available here.

Declaring a “Climate Emergency” suggest that it is someone else’s problem. We need Climate Action, and we must work together in driving this action, rather than waste precious time discussing the misguided and unhelpful Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, something that I regret even my own Conservative county council is doing.

This Conservative Government is a world leader in fighting climate change, and we have introduced the legislative tools to enable and encourage individual leaders and businesses to take action. We as individuals, business leaders, and as councillors need to get on and actually do what we can to make change, rather than producing unhelpful plans that do not in themselves solve the problem.

Selaine is hosting the North Devon Climate Summit on Saturday 18th September, 10am-1pm. Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee, is keynote speaker, with three subsequent panels focusing on “The road to COP26 and where to next”, “The role of education”, and “Blue Carbon”. Secure your ticket now.

Iain Dale: Cameron changed the Conservatives, and in many ways he changed the country for good

18 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Monday, I announced on my Twitter feed that I would be interviewing David Cameron later in the week. The paperback of his memoirs, For the Record, was published yesterday, so the interview was timed to coincide with that.

Never for a moment did I think an announcement that I would be interviewing a former Prime Minister would be met with such abuse. “What’s the point?” “He was a failure, why would you interview a failure?” And there was plenty that was much worse.

It illustrates the debasing of public discourse when people can be quite so insulting about someone who served his country as Prime Minister for six years. And he got it with both barrels from both sides.

To the more extreme Remainers, he is a traitor to his country for allowing the referendum to take place, and to hard Brexiteers he’s, well, just a traitor. “Why would you interview someone who walked away, the day after the referendum?” they brayed in unison.

Well, I’ll tell you why. Cameron changed the Conservative Party. In many ways he changed the country for good. Yes, he had political and policy failings, but all Prime Ministers do.

He may well go down in history as the man who allowed Brexit to happen. We don’t know yet whether that will turn out well or not. He may go down in history as the Prime Minister who started the process by which Scotland parted company from the rest of the UK – although if it happens, there will have been many other factors at play.

I interviewed Cameron because he presided over this country at a time of unique economic and political turmoil. All Prime Ministers are fascinating to one degree or another, and if anyone thinks I’d turn down the opportunity of interviewing him, Gordon Brown, John Major – or Lord Palmerston – well, they live in a delusional world of their own making. If you missed the interview it’s on the Iain Dale Book Club podcast right now.

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This lunchtime, I’m in Appledore in North Devon speaking at their book festival. Also on the programme are Labour’s Rachel Reeves and Jeremy Vine.

Most literary festivals this autumn have been cancelled, but Appledore have taken a brave decision to go ahead – and reformat it as a ‘Drive-in’ event.

So I’ll be on stage. Being interviewed about my book by a local journalist, and the audience will be in their cars, watching a big screen and listening to my words of wisdom via their car radios. What could possibly go wrong…?

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The Government is planning to double the maximum prison sentence for people who launch physical attacks on emergency workers.

Great news, you’d think. But it’s only from one to two years. Given we have the most right-wing Home Secretary in our lifetimes, you’d have thought she might have been willing to go to five or even ten years – but it seems not.

I just do not understand the mentality of anyone who would deliberately attack a paramedic or a firefighter or an ambulance driver. Of course, some will no doubt have mental health issues, but most will not.

I’m not sure that when the red mists descends you worry about a one or two year prison sentence, but it might cross your mind that discretion may be the better part of valour, were the sentence ten years.

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Sasha Swire’s diaries look as if they are going to be unputdownable when they are published next Thursday. If you’ve missed the serialisation in The Times, she is the wife of the former Conservative MP, Hugo Swire. And she has written a potboiler of a book, which, if rumour is to be believed, threatens to despatch them into the realms of social pariahdom.

The diaries are so indiscreet that it’s difficult to see how some of the couple’s long-term friendships can survive some of the revelations. I’ve published and edited a fair few political diaries in my time, and it’s always a balancing act between keeping juicy bits in to attract readers and editing the more salacious bits to avoid upsetting too many people.

I published Michael Spicer’s diaries some years ago and, as the publishing process wore on, he proceeded to take every single juicy anecdote out, including the identity of a Liberal Democrat MP who nearly defected to the Conservatives. He wouldn’t even say he was a LibDem. It was John Burnett, by the way. Nope, me neither.