Much is made of the north of England being the neglected half of the country, with London and the south east sucking in the lion’s share of investment.
It is certainly true that, with both the seat of national government and the engine house of the economy – the London financial service industry – being located in the south east, this region receives the vast majority of public and private investment.
The north of England has received much interest and initiatives recently to help rebalance regional inequality, and rightly so. We also cannot dismiss the Barnett Formula for Scotland and the outsize investment Northern Ireland receives within the Union.
What though of south west England? Beyond being thought of – at least by those able to afford such things – as a location for a second home or a staycation destination, the rest of the country does not give this part of the kingdom much thought at all.
Arguably the south west is a tale of two halves as well, with richer cities such as Bristol, Bournemouth and Swindon skewing the figures for the much poorer peninsula cities of Plymouth, Exeter and Truro. It is no surprise that the wealthier and healthier cities of the region are located the further north and east you travel from the south west. The only motorway that gets as far as the south west peninsula ends at Exeter, therefore missing out both Plymouth, a city of approximately 250,000 residents, and the entire county of Cornwall.
It is noteworthy that in the current financial year the NHS allocated the third highest amount of money per head of population to the south west Intergrated Care Board, at £1,536. The formula for working this sum of money out is based on various factors that determine the need of the population, poverty being a high indicator of poor health outcomes, and so generating a need for greater funding. With no national strategy for improving the local economy to create greater wealth for the region then the south west will continue to require an outsize proportion of healthcare spending per head of population.
This is the same for education. There are approximately 41,070 pupils in Devon with per pupil funding of £11,823.96. Bradford with a similar number of pupils has £11,765.09 per pupil. Oxfordshire on the other hand has per pupil funding of £11,293.00. Again, we can see that the poorer parts of the nation require greater funding to make up for other inequalities. The same goes to transportation too. The total expenditure on transport per head of capita in the south west is vastly lower than in London – the runaway leader in the UK for this type of investment. The south west has the second lowest expenditure and far below the average investment.
This is all connected. It should be of no surprise that regions that receive greater funding for transport also receive more in private investment, have wealthier local citizens, healthier citizens and thus require less in healthcare and education investment.
It would be a logical net win to both the south west and the rest of the country for there to be a coherent economic growth strategy providing improved transport infrastructure spending. Along side this should be the roll-out of broadband infrastructure and the optimisation of the industries in which the south west can excel – tourism, defence, agriculture and fishing.
The largest city in the peninsula, Plymouth, hasn’t had an operational airport for over a decade, with the city council stuck in a dispute with the leaseholder over its desire to build some homes over the site. This will neither assist greatly with the housing crisis, given that it would deliver at best a few hundred homes, nor will it turbo charge the cities economy for tourism. Likewise, the defence industry has seen massive decline for decades with a once proud tradition of shipbuilding reduced to a rump.
Given the current and foreseeable geopolitical turmoil and danger evident to the nation, the government should be investing heavily in the region’s shipyards. There is no reason why South Korea can develop a world class shipbuilding industry for an export market delivering jobs and better lives for its citizens, but our nation cannot. Similarly, in agriculture – where is the strategy for improving the export market conditions or researching technological improvement?
The politics of the south west is currently and overwhelmingly represented by the Conservative Party, but this was not always so, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour enjoying substantial support in recent memory. If a political party can tap into the mood of the region, and provide it with a beacon of hope for the future, the south west could become a bastion of support, and perhaps even a stepping stone to future government.