Memo to the New Prime Minister – Look East to Kick-start National Growth

Following Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak`s visit to Norwich yesterday for the penultimate hustings of the Conservative leadership contest, the pressure is on both candidates to deliver on their promises to level up the East of England.

Despite the East being an economic success story – the 4th strongest economic region in the UK – decades of underinvestment have left the region lagging behind where it should be. This has negative implications for the whole of the UK, not just the East. And it is why we set up the Eastern Powerhouse in conjunction with policy think tank ResPublica earlier this year.

The East receives 40% less levelling-up funding than other regions and a lower share of public investment overall. According to our research, closing this investment gap would generate an extra £31 billion a year in GDP, and £11 billion of additional tax-take for the Exchequer.

Put simply, the East can generate the greatest amount of return for the least amount of investment, compared to other regions. Considering the vast benefits that would accrue for the whole of the UK if the East received proper investment, this is a huge open goal for the new Prime Minister. Happily, the statements of both candidates at the hustings yesterday suggest they are starting to wake up to the enormous potential of the East.

As the MP for South West Norfolk, Liz Truss is well-placed to identify and address those issues that are currently holding the region back. Her promise yesterday to “turbocharge” the economy of East Anglia – through measures like tax cuts, better regulation, new investment zones, and cutting red tape – is encouraging.

Equally, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak proved himself to be a keen champion of regional empowerment – his record Teesside speaks for itself. His plans for the region include improving mental health services, investing in rail, building new hospitals, and upgrading special educational needs and disability services.

Both these plans are a welcome start, signalling a renewed political interest in the East that has been lacking for decades. However, to fully level up the East, the new leader will also have to identify and address policy shortfalls that are restricting growth.

On Wednesday, fourteen leading eastern businesses (and founder members of the Eastern Powerhouse) set out their headline concerns in a joint letter. As chair of the partnership, I too have written to the candidates. But such is the strength of feeling in the region, our members wanted their voices to be heard directly.

Their letter outlined the priority actions the new Prime Minister must take to fully unlock the potential of the East. Firstly, it flagged the critical need for rail infrastructure upgrades, particularly in areas like Ely North junction where bottlenecks chronically impede the movement of both goods and people. (Truss and Sunak both pledging to invest in rail services at Ely and Haughley is particularly welcome).

The next priority is the need for a more coherent energy strategy — one that combines oil, gas, solar, wind and nuclear, all of them in abundance in the eastern region.

Then there is the need for a life sciences strategy for the region, which would join-up existing science and technology clusters to create a ‘Silicon East’. With the right investment, the East can lead the world in agritech, green energy, life sciences and many other industries of the future.

All of these requests relate to opportunities that already exist in the East. Rather than telling government to start bold, large-scale infrastructure projects from scratch, we are effectively saying: ‘make better use of what is already here’.

When the new Prime Minister is sworn in, the clock will start ticking to deliver on a growing list of promises made during the leadership contest. Relatively easy solutions to old policy problems should be manna from heaven for the candidates, especially problems that are dogging growth in key regions of the country.

The Eastern Powerhouse is ready to support policymakers all the way on growth; we too are singularly focussed on it. Our message is clear: looking East will level the investment playing field with other regions, but it will also deliver sizeable returns for the whole of the UK. We greatly look forward to working with the new government to make this vision a reality.

James Palmer is former mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and current Chairman of the Eastern Powerhouse, which was set up by ResPublica in March 2022.