This week I wrote in The Telegraph to argue the case for more investment by the Government in Southampton. You can see the full article which was published here.
Let’s not forget about the old ‘Red Wall’ seats down South that need levelling up
Investing in places left behind by Labour, like my own constituency of Southampton, would help working people and cement Conservative gains
There were signs that the red wall was crumbling in Britain’s former industrial powerhouses long before the Conservatives surged to victory in December last year. In 2015 people in Southampton Itchen, particularly on the many council estates, voted Conservative because they felt the Labour Party no longer represented the interests of normal working people.
The idea that everywhere in the South is prosperous, and it is only the North which needs ‘levelling up’ is a myth. Southampton has suffered decades of neglect by successive Governments because it happens to be in prosperous Hampshire. This has left the city deprived of jobs and investment which means Southampton is long overdue a boost.
My constituency shares striking similarities with many of the red wall seats that fell to the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election. Take Tony Blair’s former seat, Sedgefield in County Durham. It elected a Conservative MP for the first time in almost a century with a majority of 4,513. Like Southampton Itchen, which I won with a majority of 4,498 in 2019, it is also post-industrial; but the unemployment rate there is lower and the average wage is higher.
Southampton has a proud industrial heritage and huge potential which must now be fulfilled through the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It was once the industrial powerbase of the South, with shipbuilding, automotive and other manufacturing. This has nearly all been lost, with devastating consequences.
1,100 jobs went when the production of the famous Ford Transit van was moved to Turkey. Southampton’s 500-year history of shipbuilding ended abruptly when Vosper Thornycroft left and moved to Portsmouth, costing a further 1,200 jobs in the city.
For the working people of Southampton, not enough good new opportunities have arrived to replace the industry which offered careers and security to so many. Prior to the pandemic hitting, the job opportunities that existed in Southampton were frequently in the hospitality and service sectors, which often offered poor pay, limited progression and lacked security. Of the good jobs, many were in the travel industry, which is now also being hit hard.
The warning signs came early on, as hundreds of jobs were lost and the future of Southampton Airport thrown into doubt by the collapse of the regional airline, Flybe.
The city’s jewel in the crown is the Port of Southampton. This is now also under pressure. The effective ban on cruises is depriving the city of vital income on sailing days and has already cost hundreds more jobs at Carnival’s Southampton HQ. With little remaining industry and a dependency on hospitality and leisure jobs, like other red wall seats, Southampton is much more vulnerable than the South East commuter belt.
The city is ripe for investment with an excellent rail link to London Waterloo, which is barely over an hour away. Southampton has a youthful workforce with huge untapped potential and is home to two excellent universities that further add to the city’s strong mix of knowledge and skills. Property prices are some of the most affordable in the region. The recently completed Ocean Village with a new 5-star hotel modelled on a superyacht is one of the best kept secrets of the South.
The relocation of a Government department would be a strong signal of intent that the Prime Minister is serious about his ‘levelling up’ agenda for post-industrial regions across the whole of the UK. This would also help to provide my constituents in Southampton with the well-paid jobs with good prospects which many have for too long been deprived.
Moving just a few hundred jobs out of Whitehall into Southampton would kickstart the regeneration of the city, save taxpayers’ money, and help the Government develop policies which best reflect the needs of the regions.
To truly unlock Southampton’s potential, investment is desperately needed in infrastructure. It takes almost as long to travel 20 miles to similarly left behind Portsmouth as it does to get to Waterloo by train.
Southampton is facing its greatest challenge since the Second World War. With relatively modest investment in jobs and infrastructure, the city can emerge stronger after the pandemic than before. Levelling up Southampton alongside the other red wall seats gained in 2019 is crucial in cementing Conservative gains in the places Labour left behind.
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