In 2015, after five years with the Lib Dems in government locally and nationally, Cheltenham was enjoying its strongest economy in years with a big drop in unemployment, local businesses reporting healthy order books and both businesses and householders still enjoying low interest rates and mortgage payments. In the House of Commons, Martin backed both the coalition government and Cheltenham’s LibDem-led council in taking the tough decisions necessary to build sustainable prosperity and worked hard to lobby for and promote local business. In the European Parliament, he fought hard to keep the UK within the largest free trade bloc in the world in which we had grown to be the sixth largest economy in the world.
All this is now at risk from the Conservatives’ suicidal drive towards a hard ‘Brexit’ which could could see the UK drop out of the world’s largest single market like a crate of eggs out of the back of a lorry in December 2020 (we have legally left the European Union but the ‘transition period’ period means all our access to the EU single market is still in place for now). The Conservatives’ initial arrogance and aggressive approach towards the EU negotiations and their chaotic and unco-ordinated approach to Brexit generally is undermining business confidence further.
Back in 2010, the coalition government inherited a massive financial crisis:
- Government was spending £147 billion pounds* a year more than it was raising
- If this hadn’t been brought under control, the cost of borrowing – by businesses as well as your mortgage – might have skyrocketed, doing serious damage to the economy, increasing the cost of living for homeowners and throwing millions out of work
- Unemployment in Cheltenham was already 2251 or 4.5%**, the highest in years
Some of these statistics are now dwarfed by the even more daunting impact of Covid19 but back in 2010, Martin and the Liberal Democrats backed the decisions which did bring public spending back under control, hugely reduced that overspend and reassured financial markets so that business borrowing and mortgage rates in Cheltenham were kept low as we fought off recession. By 2015:
- Government overspending was just £86 billion*, still very high but a cool £60 billion a year less it was in 2009/10 saving billions in interest payments that could then be spent on schools, hospitals and public services.
- The economy was the fastest growing economy of any of the G7 group of major economies, growing 2.6% in 2014/15 and it was estimated to keep growing at 2.5% a year until the disastrous Brexit vote and then the coronavirus crisis
- Earnings were finally starting to go up too. Together with the fall in fuel prices, this helped everyone by bringing the cost of living down this year. The Office of Budget Responsibility confirmed living standards were higher in 2015 than they were in 2010.
- Unemployment in Cheltenham fell to 854 or just 1.6%**. Under the coalition, the UK had the strongest employment growth in the G7. The number of young people claiming unemployment benefits was at its lowest since the 1970s.
Sadly much of this hard work will now be undone by the twin perils of the coronavirus recession and Brexit. It has been right to stimulate and support the economy through the current crisis with much more borrowing right now (helped by even lower worldwide interest rates) but it does mean we will face the same dilemmas over public spending, tax rises and/or huge debt bills all over again in the not too distant future.
Sources: * ONS ** Department of Work & Pensions
But a truly strong economy must be sustainable too:
- The coalition launched the world’s first Green Investment Bank and locked investment in low-carbon energy into energy markets through the Energy Act and has created a record number of green jobs.
- The coalition created more than 2 million new apprenticeships, 2,610 of them in Cheltenham, building skills for the future
- The coalition kept investing in infrastructure, maintaining spending on public transport and committing another £6 billion investment to flood defences, including more flood defence work in Cheltenham to protect another 240 properties
- The coalition committed to the largest ever sustained investment in Britain’s science base, including a £2.9 billion Grand Challenges fund to enable the UK to invest in major research facilities – progress now at particular risk from Tory Brexit plans.
The economy was stronger locally too. Even before the Covid19 crisis, Cheltenham’s council faced Conservative cuts along with other local authorities – their net budget fell in cash terms by about 12% over seven years, from £16.1m to £14.2m – but despite the cuts, there was no crisis at Cheltenham Borough Council:
- £8.5m was found in savings and additional income and ‘austerity’ had little impact on frontline services. Savings were made by radical management efficiencies, sharing back office functions and major services like waste collection with other councils, and turning arts and leisure management over to a charitable trust.
- Martin and the borough council worked together to win major new investment in developments like the Brewery, North Place and in local transport, including £5m for local sustainable transport, £45m for the redoubling of the Swindon/Kemble line to improve services to Swindon, Reading and London and an ambitious plan to upgrade parking, access and facilities at Cheltenham Spa station which won widespread backing but was cut back and has faced long delays since the new Conservative MP took over in 2015.
In stark contrast, The Conservative-led county council has lurched from crisis to crisis – taken to court over its library closures, signing up to a wasteful incinerator contract turned down by its own councillors then forced through by the administration, slapping new on-street parking charges on small business areas and leaving our roads in a total mess.
As MP, Martin lobbied for and promoted local companies from publisher Edward Elgar to worldbeating clothes retailer SuperDry, from engineering firms like Spirax Sarco, DIS and CF Roberts to IT firms like Innov8ive software. He worked with business organisations like the Chamber of Commerce, Gfirst LEP and Cheltenham Connect to promote and support local business.
He promoted Cheltenham’s Festivals in Parliament with an eye to drawing even more valuable visitors to the town and encouraged council backing for areas like the Lower High Street that deserved more support. He supported a more determined strategy to market Cheltenham to visitors, investors and relocating businesses which happened with the creation of Marketing Cheltenham.