All posts tagged 'David-Willetts'

The Pfizer blueprint - will the rhetoric be matched by action?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, March 15 2011

It is hard to dissent from much of what the government taskforce calls for to limit the impact of the closure of Pfizer's Sandwich plant in 2012.

The key recommendations in the 21-page report published today were, in some ways, predictable - there are calls for an enterprise zone, better transport links - particularly rail - and further government support through its regional development fund.

Pfizer taskforce sets out key demands; read our story here>>>

They all make perfect sense. So the issue is not whether what the taskforce says is right but how the government will respond. Science minister David Willetts was a little circumspect in what he said at today's press conference in Westminster, emphasising his support for the principle of the enterprise zone and the importance of improving transport links but saying that decisions on investment in zones and rail connections were ultimately the responsibility of the Treasury.

With George Osborne's budget imminent, it might be too much to expect him to give the green light to an enterprise zone and announce handouts via the regeneration fund.

Which raises the key issue,  underlined several times by taskforce chairman Cllr Paul Carter, that timing is critical and that maintaining momentum is a priority if the Sandwich plant is not to have tumbleweed drifting through its 2.3m square feet of purpose-built office and research facilities come 2012.

The report underlines starkly the consequences of Pfizer's decision on the wider local economy: 1,600 additional jobs could go while nearly 3,000 more in the public sector are predicted to disappear from the public sector in the area by 2015. That represents a potential loss of £380m to the economy - 9 per cent of east Kent's total output.

But it also strikes a more optimistic note by pointing to success stories elsewhere, notably the former ICI R&D site in Runcorn, which was closed ten years ago and is now a flourishing multi-purpose business and techology park employing 2,000 people in 160 different businesses.

So, if the brain drain and wrecking balls are to be avoided, the government must respond quickly.

If east Kent genuinely is on the cusp of an economic opportunity, it is an opportunity the government must not allow to go begging.

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Having written extensively about Southeastern's rail fares in recent months, I ought not to have been surprised. But I confess to being taken aback when I bought my peak day High Speed return to London from Ashford to attend today's Pfizer taskforce briefing - a rather hefty £61.20. Throw in £5 for parking and that represents £1.80 a minute.

Almost makes the cost of a litre of fuel seem cheap. Almost.

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics

Could a minister's painful train journey help east Kent?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, March 10 2011

It's often said that the only time that politicians really understand issues facing ordinary people is when they experience them themselves. So, it was interesting to hear the science minister David Willetts recount his "painfully slow" train journey from London to east Kent recently in the wake of the Pfizer announcement.

Council leaders, MPs and businesses have been banging on about the poor rail and road connections to this part of the county for years and governments have been - in Willetts' own words - painfully slow responding to them. True, the East Kent Access road is slowly edging towards completion and did get a decent slice of government cash to the tune of £85m under the previous  government for the last stage but the project has hardly been a model of efficient procurement.

So, it will be intriguing to see if Pfizer's departure from its Sandwich site will focus the government's mind on doing something to make sure that connections - particularly by rail - are beefed up.

The Pfizer taskforce headed by KCC leader Paul Carter is expected to deliver its first report to the government within days and I've every expectation that recommendations for improving transport connections will feature significantly.

David Willetts chose his words carefully when addressing the issue in the Adjounment Debate on Pfizer's decision this week but said enough, in my view, to indicate that he recognised there was a genuine problem. If the government is to appear credible about its determination to limit the damage to the Kent economy caused by Pfizer's departure, then doing something to bring rail services within an hour of London has to be a priority. And it has to be done sooner rather than later.

As Laura Sandys, the local MP, has warned there are potentially 7,000 jobs at risk because of Pfizer's decision and action needs to be swift.

 

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Pfizer: did politicians know? And why under-fire Southeastern could get its extension

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, February 2 2011

After the devastating news about Pfizer closing its plant in Kent, there has inevitably been speculation about whether ministers were privy to the announcement before it was made. Business minister David Willetts said today that the government was told 'a few days before' in a briefing with the company and immediately set about asking if there was something the government might do to change its mind.

That does rather suggest that it was as much as a shock to the government as it has been to everyone else. That incidentally, includes Kent County Council.

The question then becomes whether the government's radar was adrift on what was happening in the wider pharmaceutical industry and should - could - have been more pro-active.

Labour is suggesting - rather inevitably - that ministers ought to have been in the loop and should have been making efforts to encourage Pfizer to stay put. That may be rather over-estimating the influence and leverage governments have when it comes to persuading global corporations faced with a contracting market in a recession to bend to their will.

One other consequence of Pfizer's decision is that it raises a serious question about the government's central contention that job losses in the public sector will be absorbed by growth in the private sector - especially in the context of expected job losses of 1,500 at KCC and many others in the county's public sector.

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I am getting the distinct impression that for all its faults and the opproprium heaped on it by disgruntled passengers, the odds on Southeastern being offered a two-year extension to its contract are growing.

Despite the admirable efforts by Kent MPs to pile pressure on the government to do otherwise, it seems ministers are in a legal bind that would make it extremely difficult to go against the conclusions of its 'continuation review' and it appears likely that Southeastern may be on course to meet the required thresholds - notwithstanding the many complaints from its passengers.

The government will be extremely wary of exposing itself to any kind of legal action from Southeastern were it to go against the review and the possibility of handing out compensation to the company.

Of course, ministers will be able to blame the previous government for laying down the franchise rules that place them in an awkward position but I very much doubt that will appease Southeastern's long-suffering users or the county's equally frustrated MPs.

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Categories: National Politics | Politics

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