I was delighted to welcome the Commons Culture Committee to the Westcountry this week as part of our inquiry into the tourism industry.
After lunch at Exeter’s award-winning Magdalen Chapter hotel we held a public hearing at the city’s award-winning Royal Albert Memorial Museum. I think my fellow committee members were quite shocked at the level of unhappiness and frustration expressed by many of the tourism businesses and organisations present.
The overwhelming view was that, where tourism was flourishing, it was doing so in spite of, rather than because of, Government policies.
The abolition of regional development agencies meant that there was no longer a single organisation responsible for supporting tourism and none with a statutory duty to do so.
Some local authorities, like Exeter, continue to do what they can keeping tourist information offices open and co-ordinating marketing efforts of local tourism businesses, but elsewhere little or nothing is happening and offices are closing.
The local enterprise partnership, which replaced the RDA, shows little or no interest in tourism in spite of it being our major industry.
In Cornwall, the situation felt a bit better – helped by the fact that there is a single local authority and LEP for the county.
It was felt that TV series like Doc Martin and the Rosamunde Pilcher stories, which have been so popular on German TV, have done more for our tourist industry than any Government efforts.
New rules introduced by the recent Education Secretary, Michael Gove, making it harder to take children out of school in term time, have hit visitor numbers to the South West and made life difficult for local families who work in tourism when they want to take a holiday.
The perceived frailty of our transport infrastructure and the high level of VAT levied on tourist businesses here compared other EU countries, were also raised. “All we want is some respect”, was the common refrain we heard. Given tourism is our biggest sector in the Westcountry and one of the most important nationally and has huge growth potential, it is extraordinary it doesn’t get more attention from Government.
I hope our report, which will be published before the election, will not pull its punches. Tourism should get the respect and support it deserves.
News this week that the NHS in Devon is dropping its proposal to restrict the issuing of hearing aids to just one ear has been welcomed by patients’ groups, charities and the rest of us who had raised alarm.
A number of other proposed cuts and rationing, including denying routine operations to smokers or the obese, were dropped in December on the very day I had secured a Commons debate on the matter.
But a number of other worrying proposals remain on the table and we still don’t have an explanation from the Government about how it expects the NHS in Devon to fill its looming £430million funding shortfall.
Last February, the Government sent in consultants to investigate the dire situation facing Devon and ten other “financially challenged” NHS areas. We are still waiting for their report. My suspicion is that one reason for Devon’s predicament is that the calculation of the extra costs of caring for an elderly population under the Department of Health’s funding formula stops at 75. We have the largest proportion of over-75s in the country. It’s time the funding formula took this into account.
This piece was originally posted in the Western Morning News On Sunday in January.