Iain Stewart – 2023 Speech on the Budget

The speech made by Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South, in the House of Commons on 16 March 2023.

May I start by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) on a fine maiden speech? Many issues divide us in this House, but one that unites us is the utter apprehension that we feel before making our maiden speech, and the enormous relief we feel afterwards. She did her family and her constituency proud. I echo her comments about her predecessor Rosie Cooper, who I enjoyed working with on many issues. I hope, similarly, to have a collegiate working relationship with her successor. Let me give the hon. Lady a little friendly advice: after a Budget, she should take time to read through the detail of the Red Book, because sometimes we find unpleasant surprises but sometimes we find very welcome announcements. That is what happened to me yesterday afternoon.

As Chair of the Transport Committee, it will probably not surprise colleagues that I will start by talking about transport matters. A very welcome announcement in the Red Book was the Government recommitment to the next stage of East West Rail, which goes through my constituency. When fully opened, it will create a really important rail transport link connecting Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge. It is not just a transport link; it will help unlock enormous economic developments in the area and create the jobs of the future in many of the high-value clusters that we have along there. As well as the announcement that details will be coming out soon, there is the additional investment for local authorities to plan for developments around the new stations. That is an important part of putting in new transport infrastructure. It is not just about the line itself, important though that is in aiding modal shift, but how it helps much wider economic growth.

On a local basis, I welcome the excess of £1 million to fix potholes in Milton Keynes—I can tell those on the Front Bench that we sorely need it. Also on the transport front, but looking more widely across the country, it is a positive step that additional powers and funding are going to the mayoral combined authorities to develop integrated transport solutions for those cities and towns across the country. In particular, I welcome the ability to develop cross-modal ticketing options. Access to good transport underpins the economy and people being able to attain new jobs, and I very much welcome those announcements.

Looking longer term at transport, the Budget included some significant measures to help underpin future investment, looking not just at what the Government are spending, but how that can work in tandem with the private sector and institutional investors to help give us the assets we need in the longer term. In particular, there were the measures to extend the remit of the UK Infrastructure Bank.

Many Members have commented on the changes to pension funds. I add this point: the ability of institutional investment funds to help support the development of our infrastructure is an enormous opportunity. On the insurance side, the Association of British Insurers has identified that the post-Solvency II changes could unlock an additional £100 billion of investment for our infra- structure over the next 10 years. Similarly, there is great opportunity with pension funds. Encouraging people to save more into their pension funds does not just help retain people in the workforce; it helps create those institutional funds that can be invested to all our advantage.

The other welcome development that I will touch on is the creation of the new investment zones, which is another step in the right direction along with measures such as freeports, innovation accelerators and the various levelling-up funds. It will help stimulate partnership working between the public sector, the private sector and academic research and development. The principal of Strathclyde University, Sir Jim McDonald, has a great phrase—“the triple helix”—about combining those three and unlocking their potential to develop new technologies and how that then spreads out into the wider economy.

The one bit of advice I give to my hon. and right hon. Friends is that these schemes are great in themselves, but more can be done. When I was a Minister in the Scotland Office, my portfolio of responsibilities included growth deals in Scotland, which have proved to create effective partnership working among the public, private and academic sectors. Some of those deals are coming to their planned end and some of the levelling-up funds will conclude in the next year or two, so there is an opportunity to look at what comes next and to combine these different types of Government investments, institutional investments and working with the private sector to let local areas develop their economies to thrive in the future. I should declare a little interest: I am writing a paper on this for the think-tank Onward. It is still in production, and I doubt it will ever hit the bestseller shelf at Waterstones, but I hope it will contain some useful ideas, and I think it will probably command cross-party support because there is a growing consensus that the right way forward is to unlock and help realise locally generated ambitions. Central Government do not always have the answers; I am not breaching any confidences in saying that, and it applies to Governments of all political stripes.

The steps the Government have taken thus far with the investment zones, accelerators and so forth are good in themselves, but there is an opportunity to blend them so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I look forward to contributing to the debate on that, but this is a Budget to be welcomed for the measures I have outlined and many others as well.