This is an ambitious government. A government determined to see our country fulfil its potential. The struggle we have embarked upon is a struggle we must win: to modernise Britain so that it is a stronger, more confident country, in which all have the chance to succeed.
We have set ourselves tough tasks.
To build an economy driven by the power of knowledge and education, and a new entrepreneurial spirit.
To end child poverty in 20 years.
To deliver a return to full employment.
To modernise our public services so that they are high quality throughout the country.
To make Britain strong again on the world stage.
These are ambitious goals. They cannot be achieved overnight, or all at once. We can only achieve them in stages. Laying the foundations first, investing new money, driving through reform, refusing to be deflected from our priorities. But they are goals that are worth the fight, worth the setbacks, worth any amount of criticism along the way.
For these goals have one thing in common - they are rooted in our unshakeable belief in advancing the aspirations of the whole community, supporting hard working families up and down the country, and not just the privileged few.
I want the whole country to be part of this vision. All parts of Britain sharing in the growing prosperity of the nation. I want each individual, wherever they live, to have the opportunities to succeed, to get a fair deal. That is why I am here in the South West. To listen, to learn, to see how we can build on your successes and help solve some of the deep-seated problems that affect this region.
Ask anyone what they want from their government, wherever they live, whatever they do and it is a stable, successful economy.
For business, just as for families, a stable economy is the platform on which everything else is built. We are doing just that. And it's not easy. It needed major reforms, like Bank of England independence and the new fiscal rules which have helped to offer business something that has been absent from Britain for a very long time - predictability, the ability to plan ahead with confidence. Borrowing down. Inflation is low. Long term interest rates are at an historic low. And thanks again to major reform, this time the New Deal for young people, unemployment is at its lowest level for more than 20 years.
But I know that regions such as this need more. And it can be attitude that matters as much as policies. I represent a constituency in the North East, as far from London as Devon and Cornwall.
I do not believe that all parts of the country automatically will share equally in the growing prosperity of the country. We have to work at it. We need to help each region make the most of their potential. That often means local solutions to local problems.
That is why we set up the Regional Development Agencies. They give people on the ground the chance to shape their future; to provide effective, co-ordinated economic development and regeneration for their communities.
Here in the South West you are showing what can be done. You have focused all the key players in the region under a single strategy to build a prosperous future for the South West. You are right to make skills and learning, technology and innovation, venture capital and the environment the key drivers of your plans.
In its first 9 months the Regional Development Agency here has helped to secure 20 investments creating 2423 new jobs and safeguarding 310 - bringing more than ??100 million of capital investment into the region.
But that confidence will be damaged if some have their way. I am amazed that our opponents are pledged to abolish RDAs. They would put jobs and prosperity at risk for a generation and dash the hopes of the region.
The South West is also playing a leading part in building the new knowledge-driven economy. The task is to improve further the quality of education, attract and build more high tech companies, and support scientific and technological research. But there is every reason to believe the region can look to the future with growing confidence.
Recent jobs announcements in the area confirm this.
1,100 new jobs at Orange
800 new jobs at Sifam Fibre Optics
1000 new jobs at Ondigital
1840 at Nortel
??19m investment and 200 jobs at Sentinel Polyolefins.
100 jobs at Toshiba.
Exeter itself shows what can be achieved with a good local council, a first rate local MP in Ben Bradshaw, partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors, and the talents of the people. Exeter bridges town and countryside. It demonstrates that the two are interdependent and not in conflict. It is a city that draws on the countryside for its strength and many come to work here because of its great surroundings.
Unemployment is down 20% in the last year to its lowest level in 20 years. Business is thriving with new jobs at General Accident, Telecommunications 200, Granville Group, just some of the recent announcements. Schools are getting new investment. It will take time to turn round the backlog of repairs. But Topsham is already getting a new school after 50 years, Ladysmith a new block of classrooms. Class sizes in the region for 5,6,and 7 year olds will be below 30 before the government's target date.
Exeter successfully piloted NHS Direct. It will be one of the first places to get new NHS walk in centres. Exeter has its share of problems, of course, - some of them the problems of success like shortage of housing and congestion, others down to poverty and social exclusion. But without doubt Exeter is on the way up -a great place to live and a great place to work.
Today I am delighted to be performing the topping out ceremony for the new ??1.5m innovation centre here at Exeter University. The centre will have space for 15 small companies, all of them high tech - internet, bio-tech, advanced engineering, and software companies. The businesses will have access to university technical facilities and computing. It is an exciting and unique partnership between the government, university and business and I am sure will help economic development in the region.
And I can announce that the Telecommunications company Eurobell is opening a new call centre here in Exeter with the creation of 150 new jobs.
Later today, Northern Ireland discussions notwithstanding, I hope to visit another success story Stovax, one of the UK largest tile producers. 20 new jobs are being created, to add to the 94 already, major new contracts are being signed abroad and the company today announces that it will start employing people from the government's New Deal for the unemployed.
And in Plymouth, I hope to be visiting the exciting Tamar Science Park. The South West peninsular was without a science park until 1998. It now has one and it has created seven brand new companies and employs more than 200 people. I hope to be visiting one of those companies, Goss Interactive, a new media and internet firm run by Peter Goss, the extraordinary record breaking sailor. Plymouth has some of the poorest areas of Britain. We are trying to lift those areas up. Many of the measures we have put forward will, I believe, enable the area to bounce back and secure a prosperous future. ??10m in regional assistance, for example, has created 3,000 new jobs. There is much more to be done to deal with the poverty and deprivation that remains. But with unemployment falling in the city since the election and new high tech businesses in the area things are getting better step by step.
So the South West is grasping the new opportunities that are opening up. That will of course be helped not just by the Regional Development Agency but through Objective Two status for Devon, Plymouth, Torbay and Bristol and Objective One for Cornwall. I have to tell you there were moments in those negotiations at Berlin when it looked as if Cornwall would not get anything at all. I am delighted I could come back with the best ever settlement for the region. That is why I am so determined that it succeeds. The private sector here I know feels as strongly as I do that this must be a springboard for a new future of new prosperity for Devon and Cornwall. Town and country.
So is everything rosy? Of course not.
One of the reasons I have made this visit to the South West is to launch a report about the economic, social and environmental conditions in the countryside. This is the second report I have commissioned on the state of Britain. A few months ago I challenged people to think afresh about the North/South divide. On a visit to the North West of England I said that whilst the North had its share of deep-seated problems the North/ South divide was too simple and distorted a picture of Britain. In fact the divisions within regions are often more striking than those between regions. That I know was an argument that struck a chord here in the South West where areas of prosperity sit side by side with real deprivation and within areas of prosperity there are still families struggling to get by.
Yes, there are problems. Farming, in particular, is in crisis. Yes, some of these problems are specifically rural, like post offices and particular transport needs. But there are villages, towns and cities in very rural parts of Britain that face the same problems as the rest of Britain.
Any assessment of rural Britain, as the report shows clearly, must begin with the acknowledgement that agriculture is facing major problems. The report also shows that communities in the countryside are less likely than those in urban areas to have access to good public transport, shops, post offices, pubs and other services. There are pockets of rural deprivation, and areas where pressure on land, wildlife and scenery are all causes of concern. Real issues. Real problems, and we have a duty to address them.
Whilst parts of farming and agriculture are in crisis however, the idea that the whole of rural Britain is in crisis is to undersell absurdly the countryside's achievements. The President of the Country Landowners' Association today had this to say about the countryside - there are no jobs, no shops, no schools, no childcare, no affordable housing, no transport, no doctors, no police. Quite apart from the implication that this has all come about in the last 21/2 years, it is more than a little extreme. To describe the whole of Britain outside the main conurbations as existing in this state is to lose all sense of balance, and it is balance that we need in this argument.
The report shows that:
* rural areas have higher employment levels
* rural areas have a higher proportion of small, entrepreneurial businesses
* schools in rural areas perform better on average at GCSE.
* people in rural areas are healthier and live longer with mortality rates about 8% below the UK average;
* 71% of people believe that quality of life is better in the countryside, and two-thirds of people would like to move there if they could.
* Far more people in the countryside work in services, IT and public administration than in agriculture. Tourism in the countryside supported an estimated 380,000 jobs; whereas agriculture currently employs just over 1/2 million people.
But the report also shows the problems:
That farming income has fallen by 60% since 1995.
And that in 1997, 22% of rural parishes had no bus service at all and 75% no daily bus service.
That is why we are putting forward specific measures for the countryside, most of all farming.
Because our media can only deal in shorthand headlines any sense of complexity is lost. So if I say that the countryside is not in crisis but farming is, some papers insist I am saying no problems exist in the countryside, conveniently omitting my total acceptance that farming indeed has fundamental problems, and other problems persist.
So let me state it again. Farming is in crisis. Farmers need short-term help. We are investing ??3.5 billion into supporting farmers. ??435 million on specific aid packages to farmers. And ??352 million in compensation for the strong pound. Our ??1.6bn Rural Development plan over 7 years will help modernise the industry and allow for diversification. And I can tell you that of the 15% of this money set aside for rural enterprise schemes, training , processing and marketing grants the South West will get the largest single amount of at least ??36m.
But they also need a long-term strategy. I set one out in my speech to the NFU. I offered a partnership with Government to achieve it. It means grasping real change and reform in farming, marketing our produce on quality, diversifying, encouraging agri-environment and removing some of the petty and unnecessary regulatory burdens. We can put in investment and I have said I will talk to farmers leaders about it; but it must be tied to reform.
On rural housing, we have boosted the provision of social housing with the release of ??800m from council house sales to build homes for local people.
On the environment, we are spending on conservation, rural development, access and recreation with money up from ??128m to ??174m over three years. We have set a new, increased target of 60% of building to be on recycled land. We have added 30,000 hectares to the greenbelt since May 1997. We have increased protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and are designating 27 new special protection area and 11 new wetlands of international importance.
All measures to protect and support the countryside.
So there are, of course, specific rural problems needing specific rural solutions. But taken as a whole what's striking is how similar the priorities are of those in the countryside and those living in towns. In surveys asking for people's main concerns they tend to come up with the same list: the economy and jobs, a decent local school, crime, better public transport, fair reward for a hard day's work, and a health service they can rely on. That is what we are working each day to deliver.
The Minimum Wage and Working Families Tax Credit are benefiting rural families.
The New Deal for the young unemployed started nationally in April 1998, since when more than 50,000 people have benefited in rural areas.
On health, NHS Direct, the 24-hour, nurse-led telephone helpline which is already having a big impact on those living in isolated communities and we are reforming primary healthcare to make it more responsive to the needs of local people.
On education, we have reversed the policy of closing rural schools, and put ??40m to support small schools and raise standards.
On transport, we are tackling the problem of access to services through an injection of ??170m to provide 1,800 new rural bus services. In Devon for instance 100 villages which had a weekly bus service now have daily services.
So it isn't the case that we need to modernise urban Britain and do nothing for rural Britain. The whole country needs change and reform.
We need to equip the countryside for the future just as much as our towns and cities. Some problems will remain specific. Inner cities have specific issues to deal with just as the countryside does. Most people would not consider racial violence an everyday issue in the countryside, for example. Yet it is in many of our cities.
Drugs is no longer just a city problem but one found in small towns and villages.
We must recognise the problems wherever they are and do our best to tackle them.
I am a one nation politician and this is a one nation Government. Our polices are designed as much for the North East as the South East. For the North West as well as the South West.
There are always people who will seek to divide. The policies we pursue seek to bind our country together.
There are nationalists motivated by the desire to divide up the United Kingdom, to say Scotland has nothing in common with England, England has nothing in common with Wales, even though this is totally untrue. There are different countries within the United Kingdom, but we are bound by the same values and challenges.
There are those on the political left who seek to divide North and South, who claim everything in the North is poor, everything in the South is prosperous. Again, not true. There is poverty and deprivation in all parts of the country. And it exists side by side with prosperity in all parts of the country.
And there are those on the political right who seek to divide town and country, to say that because you live in a city you neither know nor care about those who live in the country. Again, not true. Of course, there are specific rural problems. There are also specific problems in major towns and cities. But there is more that unites us than divides us. There are more common challenges, common values, and indeed common solutions, than there are things that divide us.
This is one Britain, one nation, and I will challenge the politics of division wherever they exist. This is not to deny the real problems that do exist. It is to say that we meet their challenge together, as a unified country.