The interview can be read in full here.
What always strikes me when David Cameron speaks in the provinces is how immaculately briefed he is. It also helps he has a memory like a sponge, as was witnessed in all its glory when he gave a “look, no notes” speech during the Conservative Party conference’s leadership contest in 2005 in Blackpool, which catapulted him to the finishing line and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was good to hear the Prime Minister talk about our dreadful railway line and rolling stock but it looks as if it is down to the rail operator who wins a new 15 year franchise to decide if it is worthwhile giving Ipswich commuters decent carriages and seats (it seems Government cannot force the monopoly operator to give us a decent service!). The East Anglian Daily Times editor, Terry Hunt, who was also present at the meeting with the PM, summed it up well when he said: “It is a deterrent to business growth at the moment. The line has a poor reputation. This town is just an hour from the city yet it can feel a lot longer.” It certainly does!
I can’t help thinking that a lot of the problems we have in this town is a lack of confidence, not just the economic variety, but in local people as well. Ipswich has so much to offer but all you hear is moaning about the town. The town centre is not as bad as people make it out to be: there are new shops and there has been work done on Giles Circus which undoubtedly contributed to Waitrose choosing to set up shop in the Corn Exchange. And the Council officers have finally got round to launching the Town Centre Masterplan: the brainchild of the last Conservative-led Administration and the best effort so far to help integrate the Waterfront with the Town Centre.
Ipswich does have a problem with attracting businesses. So much so, that if BT pulled out of Martlesham, the impact on the town’s economy would be catastrophic. But why are businesses and employers not keen on Ipswich (even in the boom years!)? The mainline railway service certainly doesn’t help but that can’t be the only thing. When I chaired the Strategic Overview & Scrutiny Committee we did a piece of work scrutinising the effectiveness of the Economic Development department at Ipswich Borough Council. Three weaknesses stood out:-
1. A lack of political leadership required to drive the work of Ipswich Borough Council Officers but also sell Ipswich to potential investors. Cllr Richard Atkins was the Liberal Democrat Portfolio Holder for Economic Development at the time and he told my Committee he “steered” his department and did not “lead”.
2. An ill-thought out strategy by the Officers to sell Ipswich. Officers were quizzed by all three parties on the Committee, with Labour’s Cllr Martin Cook repeatedly asking what sales collateral (brochures, magazines etc) were being used to sell to businesses the benefits of locating to Ipswich. Time and time again there was no answer (most likely because there was no sales collateral). Civil servants by their very nature are lackadaisical but there was something fundamentally wrong with their responses to councillors’ scrutiny of their work. They just didn’t seem to get it.
3. Low educational attainment. Qualifications at NVQ Level 4 or above held by Ipswich residents aged between 19-59/64 years is 17%. The regional percentage is 27.8% and the national (England only) percentage is 30.5%. Businesses need skills and will only set-up shop where the skills exist. It’s up to local people to ensure they have the right skills to find work when they leave school. The opening of University Campus Suffolk is a great first step in helping to raise the skills bar in our town.
If local authorities do anything with our money, it should be helping to kick-start areas of the economy and then step back and let the private sector take over. This has been seen recently with the Giles Circus development and the way-finding maps around the town centre (both driven by Conservative councillors).
Today we need action more than ever and less talk from our politicians to get us out of the current economic gloom.