Torbay needs a helping hand for post-recession transition
Liberal Democrats Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay, and Sir Graham Watson, South West MEP, on how a
long-awaited EU funding boost could be transformative.
Torbay's reputation as a UK tourist destination is going from strength to strength – we recently came in the top five UK holiday destinations for the quality of our hotel services. The industry is worth over £450 million to the local economy. Across Devon, tourism is worth £2.3 billion a year.
Yet today less of the money generated by visitors to Torbay stays in the local economy, as national chains and brands have replaced family-owned small businesses. So whilst it is good to see the English Riviera excelling nationally in tourism, and recognising that the industry will always be an important part of the local employment market, we must not lose sight of the need to diversify our economy towards higher-value, sustainable employment and local enterprises that spend their profits in the area.
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We believe there is an opportunity to get the kind of EU investment in Devon that until now has been the reserve of our friends over the Tamar. In previous years Devon has had to share EU regional development and social funding with the rest of the South West, which has often watered down the value of the spending. What is needed in Torbay is not necessarily the same as that which is needed in Tavistock or Torrington.
Devon's economy is below the EU average – as it happens it is at about the same level as our Portuguese holiday destination rivals, the Algarve. But the county's challenges are different to those in other parts of the Westcountry. Indeed the Torbay area is a good 40% below the EU average, which is lower than the former mining areas of the Welsh valleys. Torbay's development is also lower than the average across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, a sub-region which has over the last 14 years benefited from £1 billion in extra subsidies from Brussels and Whitehall.
Devon's diversity makes the task even more complex. Although leisure and tourism are still the cornerstone of the county's economy, distribution, manufacturing, fisheries, food production and agriculture all play their part.
This is what led us to have a number of meetings with key players in Brussels last week to make the case for Devon and Torbay. We met Janusz Lewandowski, the European Commissioner responsible for the budget, as well as Ivailo Kalfin, the MEP leading negotiations in the European Parliament. We also met senior officials in the EU's fisheries and regional funds departments, with a view to creating a pot of money specially dedicated to areas like Torbay.
The key question for local businesses and communities will be whether they will ever actually get to see any of the cash – will the money go to where it is actually needed or just to the people who shout the loudest? We believe the facts speak for themselves. Torbay's needs are great.
The Torbay Development Agency and other partners have done great work in increasing the Bay's attractiveness as a place for businesses to locate. And Torbay has benefited greatly from the current spending round. Millions of pounds worth of funding via the European regional development fund has been used to regenerate Brixham harbour and the waterfront in Torquay.
Indeed around the bay a host of small, world-class hi-tech firms have grown up, many out of the ashes of Nortel Networks which shed more than 5,000 skilled jobs in 2001, demonstrating the area is more than cream teas and coach parties, important though they continue to be.
But if we really targeted the spending we could deliver so much more. We could build appropriately sized business units, train our youth in the necessary skills and re-train those who have been made redundant to give them a fresh start in the job market. EU funds can also be used to provide small loans to micro businesses to give them that little bit of help they need to get started.
The work has to start now. With investment from EU schemes and the coalition Government's Regional Growth Fund, Devon can emerge from the economic downturn with renewed vigour and confidence. With construction of the £110 million Kingskerswell bypass well under way, we are also beginning to see the infrastructure investment the far South West needs so badly – although we are nowhere near where we need to be on railway investment.
Our Local Economic Partnership (LEP) is working on a strategy for where this funding could be delivered. We encourage all businesses and voluntary organisations, whether big or small, to work with the LEP to make sure this county gets as much as possible out of the money.