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UK Innovation Corridor - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:08 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 9:08 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, for bringing this debate to the House today. It is an important issue.

The innovation corridor is an interesting concept and certainly does not lack ambition. Its stated aim, to compete with Silicon Valley, labels it as high in ambition. But it is important not to underestimate the complexity of the situation. This is already a thriving area: the fastest-growing area in the UK. It benefits from above average wages: it has a very high percentage of graduates and a high rate of job growth, and GVA per hour is 20% above the UK average. It is already attracting many innovative companies at the forefront of technology. In addition, it obviously offers a good and pleasant living environment.

So, on paper, it has everything to offer, and it is these kinds of innovative companies and workforce that we have to offer the world if we are ever as a nation to recover from the self-inflicted Brexit wound. I say that from the perspective of a person who very much hopes that we do not leave the EU—but, even if we were to remain in the EU, we have already done ourselves great damage as a nation.

At one end of this corridor is London, one of the world’s great cities; at the other end is Cambridge, one of the world’s great universities; and in the middle is Stansted, providing essential aviation links—essential because if one is to survive and thrive economically in the modern world, aviation is an important aspect of the mix.

But there are difficulties: corridors are much more challenging to develop than mere clusters. Reports on this concept have emphasised the complex governance and the number of local authorities involved along the length of the corridor. This was identified by Professor Enright as early as 2015 as a hurdle that needed to be overcome. As yet, there is no equivalent of Transport for the North for this area to bring the local authorities together.

The infrastructure challenges are various. There is the roads issue that the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, mentioned, and the rail issue that both he and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, emphasised; there is the need for up-to-date and cutting-edge telecommunications and ICT infrastructure; and there is pressure on housing. The brutal truth is that, unless these problems are addressed, all the branding efforts that have been made so far will not make the essential difference that we need. Addressing these problems needs funding as well as co-operation, and government is needed to provide leadership.

For the rest of my speech, I will address specifically transport-related issues. It has already been mentioned that it is proposed that Crossrail 2 should provide additional tracks—the badly needed four-tracking that has been referred to—on the West Anglia main line to enable faster and more frequent services. The National Infrastructure Commission report in 2016 estimated that the West Anglia element of Crossrail 2 would cost £3.7 billion at 2014 prices—clearly more in today’s prices. But it would enable and unlock the development of 80,000 homes.

Crossrail 2 is still at the early stages of consultation, and problems with Crossrail 1 have slightly taken the shine off plans for phase 2. However, if this corridor is to develop successfully, it is essential that Crossrail’s current problems teach us lessons rather than allow the concept of Crossrail 2 to be buried. Further development is also needed at Stratford station, and along the upper Lea Valley.

When preparing for this debate, I thought back to a visit that the committee on which I sit in this place made to a science park near Cambridge. That involved us taking the train and getting off at Cambridge North station—a very successful new development. However, what was brought home to us at the time was the total inadequacy of the current rail line. The train was delayed that day. We waited for five or 10 minutes for it to depart for Cambridge—at which point an announcement was made that the train was not going to stop at half the stations it was supposed to stop at on the way. At that point, half the people on the train got off. They had waited unnecessarily; in fact, they had missed another train in the process. This was just one occasion, but it illustrates very clearly the unreliability of that line. A Network Rail report published in February this year recommended some detailed improvements to the line and recommended that the options should be developed to the strategic outline business case stage. Will these improvements go ahead and on what timescale will further development of the proposals go ahead?

Another issue that should be raised is that, alongside its other aspects, this is a job creation project. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, pointed out, this is an area of very low unemployment. When we visited start-ups in the Cambridge area during the meeting I referred to earlier, the heavy reliance on EU citizens for new personnel being taking on as staff was obvious. I am seriously concerned that an inadequate amount of skilled labour will be available at the highly skilled level required for jobs of this kind as a result of the Brexit issues we face.

Finally, I will raise the issue of Stansted Airport. It has great potential for more intensive use and will help to fill the gap that Heathrow is designed to fill but is not yet on stream to do so. Heathrow seems to be developing rather slowly at the moment—but if the rumours are right, we may move to the next stage of the process as a result of announcements tomorrow. We need Stansted to increase the number and availability of flights in the UK coming into the London area. I emphasise that, although Stansted does well in the number of people going there on public transport, it still suffers from a less than adequate train service. It advertises a 47-minute journey, but the average time taken is 54 minutes and some trains take more than an hour. There are 77 trains a day, but fewer on weekends and holidays. Basically, links to Stansted need to be improved along with the rest of the rail line. This needs to be a development fit for the 21st century, with modern solutions, passive housing and a reliance on rail, not road, if it is to be truly successful.