Levelling up must reach into all communities not just big towns and cities, writes Selaine Saxby, Member of Parliament for North Devon

Ilfracombe is a tight knit, resilient community of 12000. Being so remote it has to be self sufficient. It is both rural and coastal, with a stunning harbour, hardy fishing fleet and its own lifeboat station reflecting the treacherous coastline and rugged cliffs. It is one of those seaside towns which was popular with the Victorians, and then cut off by the closure of the trainline in the 70s and has suffered from under investment ever since.

This week I took the opportunity to highlight some of the town’s challenges in Monday’s Adjournment Debate, as well as focus on some of the stark statistics the town hides beneath its warm and welcoming exterior.

Tourism remains the number one industry in the town, creating its own challenges with so many small businesses choosing not to register for VAT and closing at the £85K threshold, leaving swathes of employees in seasonal work and out of season benefits. But this is not a low wage economy, it is a low skill economy, 20% of over 16s have no qualifications at all, often leading big employers in the town to recruiting internationally and breaking down jobs into those that match the skills. The south west suffers from a youth exodus with the highest number of 16-24 year olds leaving, with implications for those ‘left behind’

Deprivation runs deep in Ilfracombe, as foreign holidays became the norm, old hotels became homes of multiple occupation, and some of these old hotels became care settings for those with addictions with no housing elsewhere in the country to be moved to. The town currently has 20 large buildings unoccupied, falling down. Surely there must be more that can be done to tackle these derelict properties and bring them back into use? Unfortunately no suggestions were forthcoming in the debate.

Ilfracombe has the lowest healthy life expectancy of any rural town in the country and a life expectancy well over a decade below the healthiest towns in Devon.

Having seen endless pieces of analysis, primarily the issue is housing – shockingly poor housing. 37% of the population rent in Ilfracombe, given we have no students, this is staggeringly high. House prices post pandemic have jumped by 53%, one of the highest rates in the country, understandably, it is a beautiful place to live but suffice to say wages have not increased by the same levels.

Not a single affordable home has been built in Ilfracombe since 2006, the first are now under construction. At the end of the pandemic my county council told me my constituency was home to 5 of Devon’s 10 most deprived wards. My question was what are you going to do? Thanks to the new County Council Chief Executive and her previous experience, a workable proposal has now emerged.

Six different costed proposals with different elements to tackle housing and skills have been submitted to the Department for Housing and Levelling Up. I am already following up on the proposed meeting between officials and councils to see what assistance may be forthcoming, even if just advice on how to progress the plans we now have.

My frustration at multi tiers of local government resulting in so much talking and so little delivery is great. We simply have to tackle some of the housing issues in the town, before we can start on others. Will the new devolution deal deliver anything to Ilfracombe? Unfortunately, time and again we see money going to urban centres and not reaching into the smaller, equally in need communities, and again no answer was forthcoming to this in the debate.

With 50 families looking at their second Christmas in a holiday park as there is nowhere else in northern Devon to house them, the frustration that government is sending money overseas to house people who come to our shores illegally when we cannot house our own is immense.

Levelling up was supposed to reach into all communities, not just big towns and cities, but given the long term, intergenerational nature of the issues, and the level of investment needed, we do need some help, now we have a plan to tackle issues we are a step further forward than when I first raised the issues of Ilfracombe in this place which I will continue to champion.

Selaine Saxby MP

Selaine Saxby is the Conservative MP for North Devon, and elected in December 2019.