Bishop of Exeter asks about levelling up in south-west England

On 7th April 2022, the Bishop of Exeter asked a question for short debate about levelling up in the south-west of England, in Grand Committee:

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their ‘levelling up’ plans for the South-West of England.

My Lords, I am privileged to serve a diocese in one of the most beautiful parts of England, except the picture postcard view of the region loved by tourists is only half the story. In keeping with most shire counties, the population is older than the national average. Dorset has the oldest population and Devon the second-oldest, with the average age in both counties set to rise significantly over the next 10 years, putting further strain on the NHS and our care services. However, the great thing about an older population, which became evident during the lockdown, is their resilience—they bring ballast and a honed wisdom to their communities. But this does not permit us to underestimate the logistical and economic challenge of sustaining an ageing population, particularly in coastal communities and remote rural areas.

I am proud of what the churches in our region are trying to do to improve people’s life chances. Initiatives such as Transforming Plymouth Together provided more than 126,000 meals for poor families in Plymouth in the eight months from February to October last year, and our Growing the Rural Church project is helping village churches become the weekday hub of their communities where all other public buildings have disappeared. I flag this up because, as we recover from the pandemic, we have a golden opportunity to forge coalitions of good will between national and local government, the private sector and voluntary agencies, including those of church and faith organisations, to secure the flourishing of the region.

I support the Government’s levelling-up strategy. However, the narrative accompanying it continues to focus on the north/south divide to the neglect of other regional inequities and the unacknowledged urban/rural fault line that runs through many of the Government’s policies. There are challenges within regions, not simply between regions. Rural poverty may not show up on government statistics because it is dispersed in small pockets but it is just as real as in parts of our inner cities.

The south-west has a number of reasonably sized conurbations, such as Bristol, Plymouth, Exeter, Swindon and Torbay, around which our hospitals and services constellate. Between them is a patchwork of market towns, villages and hamlets, served by a rail network that is vulnerable to the weather and poor public transport that disadvantages poorer residents and young people who wish to engage in educational and apprenticeship opportunities.

A fundamental question is whether the Government’s strategy for targeted interventions actually reaches into this rural hinterland to effect change. I support the Government’s aspiration to improve public services, but unless the current funding formulae for the allocation of national funds to local authorities and public service organisations are adjusted to take account of the additional cost of service delivery in remote rural areas, the inequity will not be addressed.

In the south-west we enjoy an honourable partnership with the Armed Forces and Brixham boasts the largest fishing fleet on the south coast, but, fundamentally, the region has a low-wage economy that is seasonal and heavily reliant on tourism. The challenge is to generate jobs that are worthwhile and invite investment. 

We have cutting-edge research institutes, such as the Met Office, and universities of international stature that are the economic dynamos of our region. My question to the Minister is this: how can we enhance their capacity for innovation?

Beside economics, there are profound concerns around the vulnerability of coastal communities, rural sustainability and the patchy provision of medical services. The Chief Medical Officer observed last year, in his report on coastal communities such as Torbay, that some of the

“most beautiful … and historically important places in the country … have some of the worst health outcomes in England, with low life expectancy and high rates of … major diseases.”

I hope that other noble Lords will pick up on these concerns, but I will confine myself to four matters: farming, education, housing and connectivity. The south-west boasts some of the best farmland in England, and we need to strengthen its capacity for home food production. The loss of the wheat harvest in Ukraine shows how vulnerable we are to global markets. Farmers are anxious about the rise in the cost of fertiliser, the drop in domestic milk production, the phasing out of direct payments to farmers and the introduction of environmental land management schemes. If the south-west is to flourish, the legitimate concerns of farmers need to be addressed by the Government.

Secondly, many of us are concerned about low educational attainment and lament the poverty of aspiration among many young people. If young people in Devon, enticed by the buzz of London, have an aspiration, it is to get on the train in Exeter and get off at Paddington—whereas, if you are over 60, your aspiration is to get on the train at Paddington and get off at Exeter St David’s. We have to raise educational standards and expand young people’s horizons so that they attain their full potential. We need to ensure that there are opportunities for young people to stay and inspire future generations. With 134 Church schools in my diocese, we look forward to working with the Government to that end, following the publication of the White Paper on schools last week.

Thirdly, there is a shortage of affordable housing, which is acute in holiday areas. Cornwall suffers from an unregulated housing market, with surging demand exacerbated by the pandemic. Coastal communities are being hollowed out by second and holiday homes, and local people are unable to find accommodation, as more housing is turned into lucrative holiday lets. Some 16,000 people in Cornwall are looking for council housing, but currently only 43 properties are available there. In tourist hotspots in Devon, such as the South Hams, property prices have skyrocketed to more than 14 times the average local salary, making homes unaffordable for most of the local population. In Ilfracombe, on the north coast, only four homes were available for private rent last month, compared with 326 Airbnbs. This is having a devastating effect on the sustainability of these communities because, with reduced indigenous populations, shops close and school rolls fall, precipitating a downward spiral of deprivation that is very difficult to arrest.

Finally, I come to connectivity. According to Defra, 9% of rural premises do not have access to a decent fixed-line broadband connection, 10% of rural areas do not have 4G coverage from at least one mobile network operator and, in contrast to urban areas, which have 97% 4G coverage from all four network operators, only 63% of rural areas have this sort of coverage. Boosting connectivity, through both transport and digital infrastructure, is essential to the underpinning of the regional economy, if we are to become net zero and safeguard the environment. We need the Government’s help to address the historic and current underresourcing of the region.

In conclusion, and in company with the Rural Coalition, I say that the south-west is more than a holiday destination or a green lung for city dwellers. It is a place of innovation, creativity and joy, and it merits greater investment than the Government’s levelling-up strategy currently offers.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Teverson (LD): I congratulate Bishop Robert—the right reverend Prelate—on securing this debate, which is really important. I absolutely agree with his theme that we think so much about the levelling-up agenda as being north versus south—or, indeed, on occasions, as has been shown factually in terms of government funding programmes over the years, urban versus rural. Of course, the south-west is important in its rural population and its rural contribution culturally and economically.

If noble Lords will forgive me, I will talk mainly about Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and the shared prosperity fund. What I say is not a criticism of the Government; one of the things I want to succeed is the shared prosperity fund. There are a number of questions here that I will go through and I would be happy to have those answered subsequent to the debate rather than necessarily here today.

Nearly everything that I talk about will also be relevant to the rest of the greater south-west. It is perhaps symbolic that all the speakers in this debate are lined up on the same side of the argument, apart from the Minister—

Lord Greenhalgh (Con, Minister of State – Home Office and Department for Levelling Up): We have someone here who was leader of Wiltshire County Council for 16 years. Take that one away.

Lord Teverson: I apologise. But we have a unity here.

In Cornwall, our earnings are some 20%—one-fifth—less than the national average. Our GDP is 30% less than the national average. It is interesting that if you look at the contours of productivity, as you move further south-west, productivity goes down significantly east to west. Is that inevitable? I look across to the Republic of Ireland, which used to be one of the tigers of the European economy. It is still more affluent than many parts of the UK. That remoteness is not something that we should take for granted; actually, it causes those differences. Of course, exactly as the right reverend Prelate said, house prices go in the opposite direction. They are high and largely unaffordable for the resident population.

The Earl of Devon (CB): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter for securing this important and timely debate. It is a pleasure to welcome—somewhat tardily—Bishop Robert to this House. He is a friend and a passionate champion of our region. I note my interests as a resident of the south-west and as the Earl of Devon.

Chronicles of medieval Exeter record that the Bishop of Exeter and the Earl of Devon fell out over the supply of River Exe salmon for their respective households during the Middle Ages. The argument reputedly led to a schism between the cathedral city and its rural and coastal surrounds that lasted for centuries. This division between urban society and the rural and coastal communities was repeated and replicated nationwide, and is one of the key reasons why the levelling-up agenda is far older and more complex than oft-debated post-industrial issues.

This rift is also the cause of our greatest national shame—the environmental degradation and rural deprivation that has caused ecological Armageddon across our countryside. Nowadays, there are next to no salmon in the River Exe, a river whose Latin name Isca means an abundance of fish—how tragically ironic. This environmental catastrophe occurred as urban populations lost all connection with the rural hinterland and the natural capital on which they depend for food, fresh air, energy and clean water. It is therefore a pleasure to join the right reverend Prelate in an effort to heal that schism and to invite the Government to bring urban and rural communities back together for the common purpose of restoring our environment and raising living standards for all. By focusing resources on the south-west, as our nation’s natural powerhouse, we can do that.

Baroness Bakewell of Hartington Mandeville (LD): My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on securing this debate so early in his parliamentary career. I also congratulate him on his excellent introduction to this subject matter.

The Government, in their weighty levelling-up document, concentrated almost exclusively on the north of England, and there was very little mention of rural areas. The right reverend Prelate has rightly raised the plight of elderly people in rural areas. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, conducting its analysis of regional inequalities in different countries, found that the UK

“is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world”.

This was not earth-shattering news for those of us living in rural areas in the south-west. While the south-west peninsula is beautiful and enjoys dramatic coastlines, it has serious issues of connectivity. One fact which I learned many years ago is that it is further from Bristol to the tip of Cornwall than it is from Bristol to Carlisle. Yet, we think of Carlisle as being very distant, while the coastline of Cornwall appears to be on our doorstep—at least emotionally.

Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter for his Question and his excellent introduction to the issue before us. He is right to highlight the current disadvantages for people in the south-west in education, housing, farming, transport, digital infrastructure and life chances for young people. I also thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, including discussing productivity, connectivity, careers and decently paid jobs.

The current economic settlement is not working. For decades, the places that used to power our country have got only the crumbs from the table. That has created huge inequalities, which Labour will focus on fixing. In the last decade, the Tories have stripped the nations and regions of funding and power. An IPPR North report shows that the Tories have taken £431 from every person in cuts to council funding and handed just £31 back in levelling-up funds. For all the talk about levelling up, we are being completely short-changed again by the White Paper. After 12 years, we are left with a list of 12 things the Government have failed to achieve—no new money nor new powers.


The right reverend Prelate is right to point out that the narrative accompanying the Government’s levelling-up strategy focuses on the north/south divide, to the neglect of other regional inequalities such as in the south-west. I say this as someone from a northern town. Both the north and the south-west of England have languished regarding key indicators such as life expectancy, educational attainment, well-being and wages. If the Government want to close the UK’s regional productivity gap and boost living standards, they must promote cross-party support and develop a long-term strategy and commitment that lasts longer than a single parliamentary term or a single party’s political agenda. Now is the moment to set a new direction of travel and for people start thinking about every government policy, in line with the UK regions; but certainly, the current plan and approach will not level up the UK.

It has come to my attention, not through research but through eavesdropping, that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter and the Minister were at Trinity College, Cambridge together. The right reverend Prelate was a young chaplain and in those days, he was giving the Minister wise words and advice. I am not sure how much importance he attached to them then, but today the message is clear, and I hope the Minister will react to it. I look forward to his response.

Lord Greenhalgh (Con): My Lords, I too congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on securing this debate. He was known as Robert Atwell when he was chaplain during my early years as an undergraduate. He looked a lot younger then—but then, so did I. I used to row, which you cannot believe, given the physique I have now. He said, “You got on the first boat, in your first term!” As a Roman Catholic, he got me into the chapel and made it very much part of college life. That is what he has brought to his current job. He really cares about his region, and it comes through palpably. He has raised a lot of very important issues.


I want to deal specifically with the right reverend Prelate’s issues; since he secured the debate, I should address most of my remarks to them. He talked about the capacity for innovation. One of the things I learnt in preparation for this debate is that we are increasing public R&D investment to £20 billion by 2024-25. Of this, at least 55% will go to places outside London and the south-east, helping those places to develop competitive advantages. Obviously, I hope that much of that goes to the south-west. There is a lot of money there to deal with the deprivation that the right reverend Prelate has outlined. Certainly, the south-west has benefited from £303 million of Innovate UK funding since 2008. We continue to see R&D investment, which can only get bigger, going to the south-west.

The right reverend Prelate is also a great champion on issues of rural and coastal deprivation. He asked a couple specific questions about whether targeted interventions reach the rural hinterland. The Government will publish the second report on rural proofing in England this spring—imminently. It will set out how government departments are working to support levelling up in rural areas through targeted approaches where needed, and how we are strengthening the rural economies. More on that anon.

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