My part of the country is an area that is rightly perceived to be successful. Cambridge is, in many ways, a model for the future of Britain, with many innovative, high-tech, high-skill jobs linked to world-class research embedded in excellent local institutions. Public and private are mutually interdependent, and not seen as being at odds.
Last year, as part of the city deal process, the local business-led organisation Cambridge Ahead worked with all the local partners, at the Government’s request, and developed “The Case for Cambridge”, which was a powerful, evidence-based argument for what was needed to maintain that success. We should be implementing that case but, instead, we have lost almost a year on an extraordinary and bungled attempt to shoehorn three counties together into a devolution deal with an elected mayor. A few weeks ago, following an over-subscribed Westminster Hall debate on the East Anglia devolution deal, I suggested that the House have a more substantial discussion not only on the East Anglia deal but on the wider issues, because what is happening across England—this bungled mix of devolution and local government reorganisation, or lack of it—has profound consequences.
At this time of all times, with the parallel debate on the relationship between Westminster and Brussels, what an opportunity this was to have had a proper consideration of how each level of government could work with another, based on mutual respect. Instead, we have had a debate on Europe that has been intellectually largely bankrupt and a devolution process that in the east was reduced to, “You’ve got three weeks to make up your mind”, and “Oh, you’ve got to have an elected mayor or two”.
What is really needed and what the business community in particular is crying out for is the imagination, the freedom and the flexibility to unlock the massive potential that exists in and around Cambridge. Unfortunately, our strengths are also our weaknesses, and we struggle on housing and transport. There are so many possibilities, including the proposals put forward by the London-Stansted-Cambridge Consortium, which would unlock growth between Cambridge and London if only we could take advantage of such opportunities.
There are other threats to Cambridge’s knowledge economy. Having already trebled tuition fees for university students and scrapped maintenance grants, the Government now want fees to rise again. Few students will welcome paying more when so many feel that their contribution is already too high. When they make comparisons with other countries, they are right to feel aggrieved. We are all pleased that the Government have promised to protect the dual funding system of research, but there are real risks that such separation will be eroded over time.
Let me conclude by making the wider point that whatever the strength of a research-based, high-tech economy, we still need to make sure that the benefits are shared fairly. When I look at the rising number of people turning to the Cambridge food bank, see more and more people on short-term and zero-hours contracts and see the visible evidence of more and more rough sleepers on the streets of Cambridge, it is clear the economy is working for some but by no means all. One looks in vain for measures that will address that very real unfairness, while the measures on housing and benefit changes passed in the last Session will make the situation in my city worse, not better. Those are all reasons why I will oppose the Government tonight.