General Matters

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 5th April 2011.

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Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 7:10 pm, 5th April 2011

It is a great pleasure to follow Mark Pawsey. I should point out to him that the original rules for association football were drawn up in Cambridge, so we have a shared interest, although that is not the subject that I wish to talk about today. I am sure we can discuss which game is better later.

I want to talk about a Cambridge transport matter. It is important that the difficult decisions we must make to tackle the structural deficit do not make us give up hope for what we can do in future. Perhaps we should see the recent economic crisis as an opportunity to remodel our economy, to make it more sustainable, diverse and innovative. We talk a lot about the need to encourage innovation, research and development in manufacturing, and my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Business Secretary have both played important roles in encouraging scientific research in providing funding, for which I thank them. However, to build such a stable economy, we need a transport system to match. We need to get away from our overreliance on roads and cars, and move towards public transport, walking and cycling, and indeed towards travelling less altogether, with video-conferencing and working from home becoming increasingly viable alternatives.

I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to talk about a plan that meets all those policy objectives: Chesterton station in north-east Cambridge. The proposal that I am supporting today would cost a little over £20 million. A bid has been made for £10 million of regional growth fund support, which I hope the Government will support. It is a well-thought-through, carefully planned scheme that would mean, right from the start, 12 trains an hour running through the new station during the peak times. The station would be an important strategic interchange that would cut journey times for the vast majority who work in the north of the city, whether they travel from other parts of Cambridge or from further afield. The station would also provide a direct link between the high-tech businesses in the north of Cambridge and London, which is critical to their growth, and it would link up with the rather flawed guided bus scheme, if that £180 million project, which was due for completion two years ago, is ever actually finished.

Cambridge is a very special constituency for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that it is a new business model for the rest of the country. It has a robust economy driven by innovation, research and development. I have explored those issues more extensively elsewhere in a charter for entrepreneurs, drawing on the successful experience of Cambridge’s brightest and best investors and innovators.

There are some very successful areas. Cambridge science park has more than 100 global companies, 145 square metres of R and D floor space, and more than 5,000 jobs on site in important high-tech companies such as CSR and Cambridge Consultants. Nearby, Cambridge business park has another 1,200 jobs in companies such as Autonomy and Cambridge Broadband Networks and so on. St John’s Innovation Centre is also in Cambridge. As well as the large global companies, we have the small start-ups—the globals of tomorrow—such as Taptu, Light Blue Optics and many others. Their presence means that Cambridge has been insulated from many of the problems that have affected other parts of the country, such as unemployment.

There are risks—Cambridge is in danger of losing its comparative advantage as a business destination of choice. When I talk to entrepreneurs and those companies, they express concerns about overheating and the lack of infrastructure investment, and talk of housing shortages forcing people to live further away and of traffic congestion in the city. Despite the impressive environmental credentials of many of my constituents, more than a quarter of whom cycle to work or education, the ability of companies and businesses to grow is hampered by the lack of public transport access, particularly in the northern part of the city.

That is a key issue, and why it is so important that the Government accept the compelling case for a new station in Chesterton. Financially, the £10 million from regional growth funds, with £10 million that we can raise locally, will in only a few years give a £5 million a year cash surplus to the railway through fares and parking. It is a very profitable proposal. It has been calculated that the proposal will lead to around 1,000 jobs, making it a good investment.

The case is clear not only in Cambridge, but more widely. For example, somebody who works at the science park but commutes in from Brandon in Suffolk currently has roughly a 40-minute drive—or twice that if the traffic is bad. The rail journey would cut that down to 28 minutes. That is true for a huge range of other rail journeys into the science park area, because the new station would be just a short walk from all those companies. It has been suggested that it would attract about 2,600 users a day, about 1,500 of whom would be new users. Furthermore, the 1,100 who are not new to rail would not be travelling across the congested centre of Cambridge.

The scheme has been worked up and in the pipeline for a long time, and is supported by Cambridge city council, Cambridgeshire county council, Suffolk county council and many others. When I served on the regional assembly, it was the No. 1 regional priority. It would remove unnecessary traffic from Cambridge city centre, improve air quality, reduce congestion and delay, enhance public transport access and relieve congested roads such as the A14, A10, A11, M11 and A1301. It would also open up public transport routes for those in cities to the north of Cambridge, such as March, King’s Lynn and Brandon, where there is less opportunity already.

The station could open up these opportunities and bring economic benefits to those areas, as the spending power of employees who live in the towns and could now commute by train to Cambridge increases. That is why Suffolk county council supports the scheme. The scheme fits well with national and local transport objectives, and would also alleviate traffic on the A14, which is a national concern. I do not envy Ministers in the Department for Transport. They have to be skilled financial managers and strategic visionaries, planning transport schemes years or decades in advance. However, every once in a while something comes along that really is an easy win. I urge the Government to support the plans for a station at Chesterton. It makes sense for Cambridge, for the east of England and for the UK as a whole.