Nick Clegg has defended the Government’s flagship policy to boost jobs in the regions against claims local economies have had state investment slashed.
Visiting the AgustaWestland helicopter factory in Yeovil, Somerset, yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the Western Daily Press that the Regional Growth Fund (RGF) was better value for taxpayers’ money than Labour’s former strategy.
Mr Clegg also visited engineering firm Rotork, in Bath, to promote the benefit of apprentices to the city’s economy.
Mr Clegg said: “We want to see young people learning and training rather than sitting at home and feeling cut off from society.”
During his visit to the Brassmill Lane engineering firm, Mr Clegg discussed the Youth Contract, the £1 billion reward scheme for employers who take on previously unemployed apprentices.
Government cash was also to the fore during his visit to AgustaWestland, which employs most of its 3,600 UK workers at the Yeovil base. It is set to receive up to £46 million of Government aid, to help build Britain’s first civil helicopter factory. AgustaWestland will match the £46 million funding with £100 million of its own money.
Critics have claimed the South West got five times as much money via Labour’s Regional Development Agency than through the RGF.
Mr Clegg responded that the cash was attracting ten times more match-funding from the private sector, which meant it was delivering “more bang for our buck”.
He also dismissed suggestions the money, central to the coalition’s plan to re-balance the economy away from a dependence on London and the financial sector, had been mired in bureaucracy.
Mr Clegg said: “It had some teething problems at the beginning. But the criticisms about delivering are fairly wide of the mark.
“That’s because the pace we have been moving at is the pace companies want to move. And we are getting more bang for our buck.”
Businesses across the West Country have benefited from the fund, from small firms such as DTR VMS Limited, of Chippenham, Wiltshire, promised £3 million, and fashion brand Mulberry, which won RGF backing for a £7.5 million Bridgwater factory – to the big boys such as AgustaWestland.
However, there was criticism from Parliament’s spending watchdog in September that only four per cent of the cash had reached the frontline.
The Public Accounts Committee found that two years into the programme, a mere £60 million of the £1.4 billion allocated nationally had reached schemes.
And the Government had admitted only 2,442 new jobs had been delivered, while another 2,762 existing posts had been protected – compared with a target of 36,800 over the lifetime of the projects.
The Deputy Prime Minister said: “This Government money is not just a massive boost to AgustaWestland, but to Yeovil and Somerset as a whole.
“Creating jobs and growth is our number one priority for Britain. This means re-balancing the economy by supporting growth in every region and across a range of industries. That’s what the Regional Growth Fund is all about.”
The Liberal Democrat leader also pledged to continue pressing for a “mansion tax” on £2 million-plus properties after failing to secure a wealth levy in the autumn statement, despite £3.7 billion of welfare cuts.
“The Conservatives, for reasons that perplex me, don’t want to ask people living in vast £2 million properties to pay a little more. That is something they will have to explain to the British people.”