Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been visiting the South West over the last couple of days and this morning I was able to secure a place in what’s known as a ‘huddle’ at a submarine factory in Plymouth.
We were kept in a boardroom to await the PM’s arrival. He was running just over half an hour late and toured the factory before heading upstairs. He arrived accompanied by Plymouth Moor View MP Johnny Mercer.
A group of regional reporters from press, radio and TV gathered and we were allowed strictly one question each.
Mine was about transport and I asked the Prime Minister if he would consider using some of the money saved by not extending the high speed HS2 into projects such as extending the M5 motorway to Plymouth, electrifying the rail line and supporting the reopening of Plymouth City Airport.
He replied: “Without getting into the specific projects, what I would say is you’re right that we need to focus our transport investment on local priorities, on the forms of transport that people actually use from day-to-day and that’s why I made quite a big decision on HS2.
‘’I decided not to proceed with further expansion of that project and instead use every penny of that money and reinvest it in transport projects.
“What does that mean? More money for road maintenance and potholes. ’You talked about new projects but if you talk to people as I was yesterday, people say time and time again, please spend more money on our local roads, getting these potholes fixed. Thankfully Devon (County) Council is going to receive millions more pounds starting with this year then thereafter as well. Bus fares? We’ve capped those at £2 outside of London to help ease the pressures for people but also investing in local transport.
“You talk about rail connections. Over the last two years we have prioritised that Plymouth to London rail connection which is much better now than it used to be and you ‘ll be more familiar with all the Dawlish improvements that have been made.
“Broadly though, I agree. We should be investing in transport that local people use most regularly and because of the decision on HS2 there will be more money available for that.”
Another question affecting the South Hams was what can be done to stop the critical incidents in places such as Derriford Hospital.
He replied: “Unfortunately we are still dealing with the effects of Covid and the backlog that it has created.
“We are making progress and if you look at what’s happening in emergency care, the performances of ambulances and A & E this winter is better than when I became Prime Minister, on waiting lists, of course we’re not making as much progress as we would like but waits for the longest waiters have been virtually eliminated and we saw in November waiting lists decline by 100,000 because there were no strikes at all.
“We’ve got a new emergency care department coming to Derriford but also local healthcare investment making it easier for people to get the checks, tests and scans they need at community diagnostic centres.
“I know there’s more work to do but the plan we’ve put in place is working and if we stick to it people will be able to have what they need.”
Next came a question about council funding with councils of different political colours struggling to balance the books. Was he worried about councils declaring themselves bankrupt?:
“We’ve just announced about £600m more funding for local councils across the country, particularly for social care where there are obviously pressures but some of that money is ringfenced for rural councils.
“Providing services in rural areas is always much more tricky.
“It will mean, taken together, councils in the South West will have about 7.5 per cent more to invest this year than they did last year.”
“On top of that we’re investing in our local communities through our levelling up funds and our town funds.
“You can see those plans starting to bear fruit.
‘’If we stick with the plan I’m confident we can deliver a brighter future for everyone in the South West.
One of the reporters asked about supporting our town centres and high streets. The Prime Minister said: “Plymouth has benefited from our funds, Torquay was given £20m to regenerate their town centre.
“The second thing is we’re cutting taxes and the most important thing is Business Rates . Because we’ve been able to manage our economy well, we’ve been able to give retail, hospitality, leisure businesses all are receiving a 75 per cent discount on their Business Rates bill this forthcoming year. It’s worth thousands and thousands of pounds a year to a small shop or pub.
“Lastly ,planning reform. We need to make it easier for our high streets to adapt and evolve and things to change what they’re used for and we’re doing that too so if people’s habits change we can evolve and adapt with them.”
Finally there was a question about council’s not having enough money to do anything other than the basics and the Prime Minister was asked what he could do to help.
He said: “My first job in government was as a Local Government Minister so I spent a lot of time with councillors across the country, particularly in the South West and I know they do an incredible job, working hard to deliver for their communities.
‘’That’s why we’ve supported them with £600m more funding meaning councils in the South West will have 7.5 per cent more funding and on top of that we’re backing them with direct investment in their communities, high streets fund, towns fund, levelling up fund, transport impriovements from HS2, tax cuts for their local businesses, rolling out broadband in rural areas like the South West.
“These are all things we’re doing because we’re doing because we want people in the South West to know the Government’s on their side, we’ve got a plan that is working and because of that, people can have the peace of mind that they will have a brighter future and a renewed sense of pride in our country and I’m confident that if we stick with that plan, that’s what we can deliver.
“As we saw yesterday from the Labour Party, the choice at the next election is increasingly clear, a signature economic policy in tatters, because they don’t have a plan and you can’t deliver any positive change for people if you don’t have a plan. It would just take the South West and the country back to square one.
Then that was it. The Prime Minister quickly headed for the door but not before I buttonholed him for a selfie which turned out to be a photo taken by Plymouth Moor View MP Johnny Mercer.
He then left for ‘somewhere in east Devon’.