Matthew Hicks, Suffolk County Council leader, quizzed on investment and priorities following the appointment of new Prime Minister
With new Prime Minister Boris Johnson getting to work on his ambitious vision for the country, fresh questions have been raised over what that means on a local level.
Local democracy reporter Jason Noble put a series of questions to Conservative Suffolk County Council leader Matthew Hicks to find out why the county needs fresh investment from central government and what the priorities must be.
According to the East of England All Party Parliamentary Group, the East of England is one of the few regions to contribute more than it gets back from central government. How much of a concern is this?
“I’m not sure concern is the right word – we need to look at this from two perspectives.
“Every region would like more than it contributes and every region has challenges that it wants central government to help mitigate.
“We all need to help generate the wealth a government has available to use.
“We should also consider that being a net contributor is a sign of success. Our region is a driver of economic activity in this country and is something we should be proud of.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t want and need more funding for our own challenges, we do, and we will continue to lobby hard for that.”
What do you think are the priority areas for investment in Suffolk? Roads, schools, policing?
“The county council has already set out its priorities for 2017 – 2021. Suffolk must improve its economic productivity, levels of educational attainment and build more homes, ensuring that everyone benefits, including people who are vulnerable and facing disadvantage.
“We must continue our focus on healthcare and wellbeing for our residents, caring for Suffolk’s vulnerable residents, enabling everyone to live long, healthy and fulfilling lives is one of our top priorities.
“Thriving families and communities and thriving economies support each other. I would also like to see more action to tackle climate change, at a national level.”
What are some of the key reasons Suffolk should be funded better and what are Suffolk’s key strengths economically?
“We are incredibly lucky in Suffolk to have so many nationally recognised assets in our county, including the UK’s premier container port; the centre of the world’s horseracing industry; a major energy production coastline; the cutting edge of future tech at BT’s Adastral Park and our outstanding countryside providing a haven for wildlife and tourists alike.
“These assets stand alongside our outstanding reputation for agriculture and locally produced food and drink which has achieved a national profile for excellence.
“We cannot take any of these for granted and investment which supports each must continue to be sought and won.
“We must gain funding to improve connectivity within our rural county. We have already made massive investment in this area getting us to 94 per cent of premises being able to enjoy superfast broadband and we have funding to get us to 98 per cent.
“But that still leaves 2 per cent unconnected and that’s 2 per cent too much. We need more investment into connecting Suffolk businesses to markets around the world so more funding for rail and road links across the county.
“Having an asset like the Port of Felixstowe is a huge boost to the Suffolk economy, but that comes with its own challenges that need significant funding to mitigate.
“The A14 corridor especially needs to be upgraded significantly along its route, including the Orwell Bridge, we cannot continue to see the disruption caused to our county town whenever the A14 is closed or blocked.
“I also think that post-Brexit, with the right investment in towns like Lowestoft – we have the opportunity to rediscover our fishing and coastal towns, who we know suffer from higher levels of economic deprivation.”
Do you feel Suffolk is getting a fair deal when it comes to central government funding? Do you think there is a perception that Suffolk is affluent so it is fine?
“I think it is easy for some to think that quiet, mild-mannered Suffolk doesn’t have any significant problems or challenges compared to the large metropolitan areas. As we know, this isn’t true.
“Funding is needed for a host of challenges whether that be for education, infrastructure, adult social care or children services.
“I continue to work with all the councils of Suffolk and our Members of Parliament to ensure our voice is heard and lobby relentlessly for more money.
“We have had success in this so let’s not suggest Suffolk never gets any funding. I strongly believe that when we all work together to make the case for funding, we all stand a much better case for getting it.”
What would be your message to Boris Johnson in making the case for Suffolk?
“Suffolk stands ready to play its part in a post-Brexit Britain, but we need the government to invest in us.
“I would also invite the new Prime Minister to visit the county at his earliest convenience, come and experience what Suffolk is all about.”