The time has come for East Anglia to get aggressive and grow
PUBLISHED: 15:06 11 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:06 11 October 2018
PA Archive/PA Images
East Anglia is rightly proud of its many assets.
The unrivalled coastline and its stark contrasts of the almost Mediterranean south Suffolk beaches and the wilder north Norfolk shore, the cosy villages amid sprawling countryside under endless skies and, of course, our vibrant urban centres.
I grew up in Yorkshire and spent many years living in London. I have also lived in other parts of the UK – nowhere compares to the glorious East.
We are lucky to live, work and play in Britain’s finest region.
But East Anglia must not rest on its laurels. It is tempting when something is so good to resist change – but the danger for the East is stagnation.
At Conservative party conference I interviewed Treasury minister Robert Jenrick and he touched on why he thought devolution had been successful for certain areas of the country including Manchester and Teeside.
Mr Jenrick was clear: these areas now have a direct link to central government. What that means is simple, the elected mayor gets to lobby ministers and fight hard for their region. They have a seat at the top table.
He explained how he spoke to Teeside’s mayor on a weekly basis and this closer relationship has led to investment in the area.
Now, what is good for the likes of Manchester and Teeside is, of course, not necessarily good for Norfolk and Suffolk. And I am by no means saying devolution is a no-brainer for our region. Although we have a lot in common and there is an East Anglian identity, this is a region with diverse issues.
Take the fishermen, the farmers, the rough sleepers so scandalously forced to live on our streets – how could one voice, an elected mayor, help all those people?
Like much else in modern life the answer, obviously, will always come down to money. And we need more.
The more government money the East can grab hold of – and there has not been much during the years of austerity – the better.
The Budget is looming and the thinking is that after Theresa May suggested the end of austerity was in sight the purse strings may begin to loosen. Don’t expect to take a delivery of a gold-plated wheelie bin anytime soon but the chancellor has little choice but to spend some dough.
There is a long list of things that need improvement: the A47, a bypass for Long Stratton, another river crossing in Lowestoft and, of course, the upper Orwell crossing which would go a long way to easing the chaos each time it gets a bit blowie in Suffolk.
There have been encouraging noises from government about money for an improved bus service in Norwich and – finally – the new river crossing in Great Yarmouth is imminent.
But the East deserves more. There has been a generation of under funding – we’ve missed out and we should be angry. Even Conservative party chairman and Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis agrees telling me “one of the problems in the East is we have had decades of not getting the kind of investment we should have”.
New roads, new bridges, a better rail link to London – all these things are vital for the East to continue to prosper. We have been overlooked in the past but we, as a region, are also guilty of not pushing ourselves to the front of the queue.
East Anglia needs to get aggressive. If we want our children to have the opportunities they deserve in their own towns, if we want to keep – and even attract – new businesses the time to act is now.
We hear constant references to the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine ... Why shouldn’t the East be spoken about in the same way? The business community has been chatting about how to brand the East in a similar manner for years – but this should be about more than marketing.
The East needs to puff out its chest and be open about the pride, ambition and zeal everyone who loves this region feels.
There may be times of disruption as building work takes place, more people may come to live and work here and things will change. But no village, town, city, county or wider region can stand still.
And with better infrastructure will come better opportunities. No longer will Norwich lose jobs to cities closer to the M1, no longer will Ipswich suffer a brain drain to London. Somehow, East Anglia must have a seat around that top table next to Manchester, Teeside and the rest. Now we just need to work out how.