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.