For too long it has been ‘jam tomorrow’ for infrastructure upgrades in rural Britain
Levelling up comes as a package. Investment in skills training is welcome, but we need the transport and broadband connections to access those better opportunities
When the Prime Minister talks about “levelling up”, people in rural Tiverton and Honiton listen, because we recognise the urgent need to invest in our area and reduce the urban-rural divide.
Levelling up is more than a soundbite. It is about using the levers of government to boost investment and raise productivity, whether through better transport infrastructure, broadband, or education. The result is more investment, more skilled jobs, better connectivity, and a higher standard of living.
In the West Country, we have formed the Great South West APPG to help attract investment for our priorities. One of the key challenges, as always, is proving value for money. Are enough people going to use the new metro station? Are schools in deprived urban areas in need of greater attention? Will the Treasury see a return?
In Tiverton and Honiton, we are currently making the case to extend the Devon Metro and rebuild one of our historic stations in Cullompton. When built, the improved Devon Metro will provide a convenient hourly service for residents, with access to Exeter, Taunton and beyond.
I was delighted, therefore, when the government gave its recent backing for our proposals, showing faith in Mid Devon. This was a key election pledge of mine and, as you would expect, local voters want to see spades in the ground and trains on tracks, not empty pledges.
Connectivity remains the biggest barrier we face
For too long, it has been ‘jam tomorrow’ when it comes to infrastructure upgrades in rural Britain. Upgrading digital connectivity is now just as important. During the coronavirus pandemic, we are relying on our internet connections more than ever. But there has been nothing speedy about the rural broadband roll-out to date and we are currently lagging behind other European nations.
In a recent debate, the broadband minister confirmed that my constituency has one of the worst average speeds across all English constituencies. The recent announcement of £22m in further government funding for the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme is welcome, but the wider roll-out of fibre broadband to the most rural areas cannot come soon enough.
Finally, investment in education and skills is perhaps the most important means of raising both aspiration and productivity, wherever you live. During the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Exeter College, where many of my constituents go to study, he spoke of the need to invest in the training and skills system to make it “fit for the 21st century economy”. I agree. We need to give all students the tools to succeed and level up. Not only are we pouring £760m into upgrading FE colleges this year, the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee will help students, of all ages, retrain to acquire the skills necessary for the modern post-Covid economy.
But students in rural Britain will need to access that education. Levelling up comes as a package. Not only do we need investment in skills and training for the jobs of the future, we need fast transport and broadband connections to access those better opportunities today. For me, connectivity remains the biggest barrier we face. Level up connectivity and we can level up rural Britain.
Neil Parish is the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton.