The East / North divide: Why region must compete to stay alive

Norwich has been awarded £25m - but the city and region needs to fight harder for more support
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Norwich has been awarded £25m - but the city and region needs to fight harder for more support Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Good news this week as it was announced Norwich had bagged a £25 million windfall.

This was part of the government’s 101 Town Fund – hopefully not some dystopian, Orwellian prediction – with areas across the country sharing a £3.6bn pot of gold. Ipswich also hopes to snag £25m.

The great and good were wheeled out and the consensus was positive.

And I agree that any money East Anglia gets to spend on transport, infrastructure and skills should be welcomed.

So, thanks. Now where is the rest?

I don’t want to sound like a killjoy but £50m across Norwich and Ipswich will barely touch the sides. It feels like hush money to keep us sweet.

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Of course a lot of people have worked hard to ensure our region got this money – I am sure they share my desire to improve East Anglia.

In Ipswich specific projects have been identified – expertly led by my old friend Terry Hunt – and I am certain this money will see some of those come to fruition.

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In Norwich the plans do not appear to be as developed – there is some talk of a “digital hub and digi-tech factory”. Sounds very futuristic.

We await news on how much money Lowestoft, Colchester and King’s Lynn might get.

Please don’t get me wrong – these projects are all very worthy and I am excited to see them up and running.

But what annoyed me was the widespread glee at these hand outs. And it got me thinking about ambition – and whether the East has enough of it.

The East of England is a truly incredible part of the world. We are blessed with a beautiful coastline. We have stunning countryside and enchanting woodland.

And we have a robust and innovative business community that works tirelessly to create wealth and keep it in the region.

But now our politicians, business leaders and trusted civic voices have a big decision: do we drive the East forward or sit back and enjoy what we have got?

If East Anglia continues to quietly wait at the back of the Westminster cash queue – behind all the devolved regions and the shouty, aggressive metro mayors – we will continue to get the odd bit of cash chucked our way along with scores of other towns and cities.

East Anglia will tread water.

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Sounds OK? “We’ll just stay as we are thank you very much ...” But is that sustainable? Nope. Because everything around us will change.

Already businesses have quit the East because of the abysmal road system. I hear horror stories of excellent rural businesses struggling to download the smallest of files because of substandard broadband. Now add to that the appalling levels of social mobility.

The majority of our MPs are fairly docile. That is not to say they don’t work hard. It is not to say they don’t care. But they do as they are told. Not many – couple of notable exceptions – are banging their fists on Westminster desks and demanding more for this part of the world.

And for some it is a safe seat and a job for life. Happy days. Not much ambition.

But Norfolk and Suffolk need ambition. We need to drive our region forward. Not just so today can be better but so that tomorrow our children and grandchildren get the opportunities they deserve.

We need more fight. We need to shout. We need to be more aggressive. Because docile doesn’t get the big bucks. Docile gets lumped with 99 other towns and cities.

I often talk about the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine in this column – and why we need to compete. Here’s a good example – 45 places in the Northern Powerhouse area got Town Fund cash and 30 in the Midlands.

Put that next to our five. Are you angry yet? You should be.

The East so often politely accepts the handouts of central government. We should be taking that money and immediately demanding “where is the rest?”

Government after government – Labour and Tory – have overlooked the East. There has always been somewhere else with a more pressing need. And those areas have become experts at keeping the pressure on. We are being left behind but we can make up ground and start to get the support we not only deserve but actually need.

The North and the Midlands are not special. But at the moment we are not even in the fight. We aren’t even competing. We need to scrap to get what East Anglia deserves.

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