Strategic Transport (Cambridge)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 27th July 2010.

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Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 4:29 pm, 27th July 2010

I am delighted to have secured this crucial debate, especially as it is the last Westminster Hall debate before the long recess. I apologise, Mr Sheridan, for detaining you and the Minister from the break. Transport affects all my constituents daily, in one way or another, and it is a major concern that is raised constantly by residents and employers. Having spent almost my whole life in Cambridge, and having chaired the Cambridge traffic management committee for many years, I know the problems all too well. However, I am enthusiastic about the opportunities to make transport in Cambridge better for all-for businesses using important freight routes, for commuters who make the daily journey to work, and for tourists who come to enjoy the region's historical and cultural attractions.

If we are to have a transport system that is better for all, we must get our priorities right. That means seriously considering whether we should continue our dependence on cars and lorries. I am sure that I need not rehearse for the Minister road vehicles' impact on the environment. I have long believed that there are good arguments based on nothing more than simple self-interest. Congestion is increasingly problematic everywhere, and particularly around Cambridge. Everyone knows that, and no one enjoys it, but the evidence shows that, if more roads are built, more congestion fills those roads.

The best argument for doing things differently is simply the A14, which is vital to the region and the country, but is notoriously congested and unsafe. The traffic loads are far above those recommended by the Highways Agency, and almost a quarter of vehicles on the road are HGVs travelling to or from Felixstowe port. HGVs are responsible for more than one third of the accidents on the A14. Anyone who has travelled along the road a few times will know how often there are hold-ups. Even a trip to the supermarket may quickly become an expedition worthy of Captain Scott. Sadly, the Highways Agency's way of dealing with the problem belongs in the history books. The agency and the county council are trying to ram through a scheme that would see the road widened to a 10-lane superhighway at the exorbitant cost of around £1.4 billion. That is a huge, unaffordable sum, especially at this time of financial constraint.

My concerns are not just financial. The proposed scheme, which the Government have put on hold, would also wreak havoc on Cambridge. The calculations show that several key roads in Cambridge would have a huge increase in traffic. For example, Huntingdon road, which is the main entry into the city from the north-west, could have 60% more traffic, while Horningsea road, to the east, could have traffic levels more than doubled. The effects of that extra traffic on other roads in Cambridge-for example, the ring road system-have simply not been calculated.

That is not to say that nothing should be done. In 2002, when I was a young, new county councillor, I argued that we should make safety improvements as soon as possible, develop a smaller scheme that would also deal with associated problems, such as the Huntingdon viaduct's end of life, and prevent Godmanchester from being a slip road for the A14. I made my suggestions at a council meeting, but they were dismissed by the ruling Conservatives, who said that a big scheme would be along soon. My proposals would have saved time and money, and they would also have saved lives. It is disgraceful that, eight years on, no safety improvements have been implemented, and a coherent, affordable plan has not been developed to deal with the A14 problem.

I pay tribute, in passing, to Cambridgeshire police, who have taken special measures to reduce the number of accidents, although they can only do so much. The introduction of average speed cameras has been impressively effective in reducing accidents. Will the Minister examine the affordability and cost-benefit analysis of a much smaller-scale improvement that would deal with the main safety concerns, could be delivered soon, would benefit so many residents and start to save lives now?

Sadly, the A14 is not the only problem area for travel around Cambridge. The fiasco of the Cambridge guided bus is another example of poor strategic thinking. As Liberal Democrat leader on the county council, I led the campaign against that ill-conceived project. The money and the space, even as designed at the outset, could have been far better used for other schemes. One problem is that the bus is not guided through Cambridge, which is precisely where a guideway would have been most useful. It is notable that the inventor of the guided bus concept lives in Cambridge, and was an active campaigner against the guided bus.

The county council, egged on by the previous Government, became so fixated on the guided bus that other facilities lost out on resources as a result. That error was compounded by the failure to ensure that Cambridge residents would be able to use the system. There are continuing limits on where it will stop to pick up passengers. In the meantime, other bus routes have been altered, and stops removed from service to allow the guided bus to speed through when, if ever, it starts running. As I speak, the whole project is some £50 million over the allotted budget of £106 million, and is more than a year overdue, with no immediate prospect of running any time soon. Indeed, some of the buses bought by Stagecoach to run on the guideway used to say, "I'll be on the busway soon", but were repainted to say, "Will I be on the busway soon?" That shows the level of its concern.

The latest public papers suggest that legal arguments between the county council and the contractors, BAM Nuttall, are likely to run until 2014-15, greatly benefiting the lawyers on each side, I suspect, whatever the outcome. That is not ideal for people in Cambridge who would like to be able to get around. I hope that, when the scheme is finally up and running, it will be effective, and that people will use it. A white elephant with some usage is far better than a white elephant with no usage. But given the broken promises by the Conservatives at Shire hall that it would be built "on cost, on budget" and at

"no cost to the Council taxpayer"',

I am not holding my breath. The Minister agreed in response to my parliamentary questions to hold a review of guided bus policy, and argued that the county council should perform its own inquiry into the system. I thank him for that.

What are the solutions in the A14 corridor? The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the best way to lighten congestion on the A14 is to get freight off the road and on to rail. Our manifesto pledge, as I am sure the Minister knows, was to take money from the major roads budget and to use it to reopen closed rail lines. One such line is the east-west link, which comes in two forms, depending on who one talks to, but both would be beneficial. One version is the Cambridge-Oxford line, and opening up a direct route across the country from Ipswich to Oxford; the other is more northerly, via Nuneaton, and would allow freight to travel from Felixstowe docks without having to use roads until much nearer its destination. Work has already commenced on the Nuneaton section, and I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to see that essential work through to completion, so that we have a functioning freight route.

Those schemes would massively reduce traffic on the A14, making it safer, faster and more reliable. They are remarkably cost-effective, and would use existing infrastructure for much of the route. For the wider region, that would provide far greater freedom of movement for workers and tourists, along with better and safer options for businesses-truly a transport system better for all.

As well as investment in rail infrastructure, which would enable a switch of freight mode, further incentives are needed. A scheme in Switzerland, the Leistungsabhängige Schwerverkehrsabgabe, or LSVA-I apologise to the Hansard reporters and anyone who knows how it is pronounced-is a nationwide scheme that charges HGVs to use the roads. The fee is based on all distance travelled; it is charged per kilometre as well as per tonne. It also includes an element depending on vehicle emissions, and applies to all HGVs weighing more than 3.5 tonnes. Will the Minister investigate such schemes to encourage freight off the road and on to rail, hopefully with the rail scheme that he will help us to deliver?

Another vital step for Cambridge is the introduction of Chesterton railway station. It has been needed for many years and, at a stroke, would reduce congestion in the centre of the city. Surveys show that around 70% of the vehicles parking at Cambridge station come from north of the city, so a station at Chesterton, which is in the north, would see the majority of those vehicles diverted there, bringing welcome relief to residential streets and the historic city centre. That project would be relatively cheap, and would be an excellent fit with Government policy. It would meet criteria for improving access to key centres and reducing carbon emissions. It would also be beneficial for the many high-tech companies around the Cambridge science park, as they would benefit from more convenient travel for their employees, and from better connections to London. On a technical note, such a project would ease the existing congestion at Cambridge station. Cost-benefit calculations are extremely positive, and that proposal was the top regional priority under the former grading scheme.

I understand from the Minister that the Department for Transport is working with the county council to assess the scheme for Chesterton, and that the council is considering funding options. I urge the Department and the council to reconsider the expensive and bloated expansion of the A14, and to redirect funds where they are most needed. Cambridge can grow in a sustainable way only if investment is put into public transport facilities now.

Such investment should include transport interchanges, and one specific issue is that of access to cycle parking at Cambridge station. There is huge demand for cycle parking at that station, as anyone who has used it will know, but there is gross underprovision of spaces. I have raised the issue with Network Rail, First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia, and those companies have agreed to work on the problem. In particular, Network Rail has committed to looking at providing new double-decker cycle racks at the station, until the large CB1 scheme is complete, and I thank it for that commitment. Will the Minister ensure that such small proposals, which would nevertheless make a huge difference to people's daily lives, are supported, mandated and funded?

We must encourage people to use forms of transport other than the private car. As a driver, cyclist and pedestrian, I am keenly aware of the conflicting needs of different travellers, but it is a constant balancing act. I have no wish to deny drivers essential access, but I also want to ensure that we promote environmentally sustainable forms of transport around Cambridge. Cycling and walking are the ideal forms of travel, and they help people to stay healthy. Too often, however, local authorities are slow to provide good-quality routes for people to use on which they feel safe and which do not deviate from their direction of travel. Such routes tend not to get the appropriate levels of maintenance when potholes appear and-at least in Cambridge-they are not gritted sufficiently during the winter months.

In Cambridge, we had to reinstate legal cycling along a national cycling route through the city centre after it was banned by the Conservatives. Other measures would also help. A speed limit of 20 miles per hour should be easier to implement on a city-wide basis, so that although the speed limit on major roads would continue to be 30 miles per hour, side streets would have a limit of 20 miles per hour. That would have a limited impact on drivers, but would significantly increase the safety of cyclists and pedestrians.

We need less bureaucracy. In Cambridge, we spent many years seeking permission from the Department for Transport for road signs that indicated no entry to all except cyclists. We campaigned on that for years, and we have finally been allowed a pilot of a sign that should be easy to demonstrate and use. Such signs are more easily understood by road users than the low-flying motorbikes that are the alternative sign.

We must also promote bus services. Buses provide essential access, but too often they are run by monopoly providers, whose main interests are their own financial returns rather than the provision of a proper transport service to the population. Such providers use their clout to extract huge sums of money from councils to provide essential services. Will the Minister defend funding for cycling and walking schemes in Cambridge and elsewhere, and will he support more local powers to improve the bus services? Will he help with the trains so that there is more space to find a seat and tickets are better and more clearly priced? As a parochial interest, could there be a sign in King's Cross underground station to state which platform the Cambridge train will depart from?

Two years ago, this House made the courageous decision to pass an Act to stop climate change. However, it is no good setting targets if positive action is not taken to achieve them. If we persist in ignoring the fact that it is impossible to build our way out of congestion, we will not only make life more miserable for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike, but throw in the towel in the battle against catastrophic environmental damage.

Making transport better for all in the short term is one thing, and I am delighted to have had the chance to set out my proposed strategy for Cambridge in the coming years, but we should never lose sight of the fact that, by increasing access to public transport and creating sustainable communities, we are not only making transport better for all-we are also building a fairer society.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 4:44 pm, 27th July 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Huppert on securing this debate; this is the first time that I have had the chance to welcome him formally to this place, and I also congratulate him on taking over from David Howarth in representing the people of Cambridge. He has asked a number of questions about transport in Cambridge and has raised some important issues. I am pleased to respond to his first Adjournment debate on a subject that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. He will recognise that he has given me a huge wish list, and I cannot promise to satisfy him on every point in my response.

As a preamble, I shall say something about the priorities of the coalition Government. The coalition agreement makes clear our commitment to a modern low-carbon transport infrastructure as an essential element of a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. However, I must also make clear at the outset that the overriding need identified by the coalition Government is that of tackling the national deficit. That means that the decisions we take and the speed with which we are able to implement transport improvements will need to be determined in the context of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

The Department for Transport is playing a full part in the spending review that will report in the autumn; there will be a statement from the Chancellor on 20 October and we have already announced a range of measures aimed at delivering reductions in spending. On 24 May, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave details of £6.2 billion of savings in Government spending in 2010-11. The Department for Transport is contributing to those savings by finding £683 million this year, and that has meant taking difficult decisions on funding. On 10 June, the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government published further details of local government savings, including £309 million of savings from local transport funding.

I understand that those reductions and the deferring of decisions on some transport schemes until after the outcome of the spending review will be difficult for many places. Through reductions in ring-fencing we have maximised the flexibility for local authorities to reshape their budgets according to local priorities and identify where efficiencies can be found. There is also an opportunity to rethink transport plans and priorities and ensure that proposals are environmentally, as well as financially, sustainable. Given current financial constraints, it is essential to ensure that any new infrastructure is affordable and offers value for money.

My hon. Friend knows better than I do that Cambridge has always been an important and distinguished city whose origins go back to Roman times and the location of the first bridged crossing of the River Cam inland from the sea. Transport clearly had a crucial role in society then, as it does now. Cambridge is a world-renowned university town with three universities. It is city of science that has hosted such eminent scholars as Newton, Darwin and Watson and Crick. Lately it has built a world-wide reputation as a leader in bio-engineering technology, and the growth of that sector is a powerful economic driver, both locally and nationally.

The growth of Cambridge and the demand for travel has led to increases in traffic congestion. With many more new homes planned for the sub-region over the next 10 years, even more people will be travelling around. Since the 1970s, successive Governments have attempted to solve the congestion problem by building more roads. First came the M11 from London to the south of Cambridge in the mid-1970s. That was later extended to provide a western bypass of Cambridge in 1979 and the Cambridge northern bypass followed soon after as the A45. The old A604 road to Huntingdon was dualled and widened, but it was not until the mid-1990s and the completion of the M1 to A1 east-west link in Northamptonshire, that the whole route was renumbered as the A14. That route became the first major east-west trunk route linking the east coast ports to the manufacturing centres in the midlands and the north-west but, as my hon. Friend will know, the road is now a congested artery.

In widening the old A604 to a dual two-lane carriageway, the Government of the day did not foresee the demand that would be placed on that road once it became part of the A14. As long ago as 1994, the standing advisory committee for trunk road assessment-SACTRA-made clear in its report that new roads tend to generate additional traffic, which must be taken into account in forward planning.

There have been various schemes to widen the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. The most recent is the present A14 Ellington to Fen Ditton scheme, which emerged as a recommendation of CHUMMS-the Cambridge to Huntingdon multimodal study. My hon. Friend will be aware that a preferred route was announced for that scheme a few years ago, and that a public inquiry was scheduled to start last month. That inquiry was suspended pending the outcome of the spending review, as has happened with other such schemes across the country. It was simply not tenable or sensible to continue with the statutory process of the scheme, given the uncertainty in relation to the spending review. I should record at this stage that there is significant support for the scheme, but there are also many people who have serious reservations about it, on both environmental and financial grounds.

The scheme cost is now in excess of £1 billion, which would be a huge investment for a single road. The spending review means that we must reconsider the affordability of that scheme and all others. We shall need to consider whether we really have the best and most sustainable solution to the problem. We have to ask that question about all schemes.

I take my hon. Friend's point about safety improvements. It is certainly important that we do not have an absence of safety improvements to a road because we are holding out for something bigger. I had a similar situation in my constituency with the A27. Clearly, people who have concerns about safety have a right to have those addressed. That will need to be factored into any consideration that we undertake in relation to the road that we are discussing today after the spending review is complete. I stress that no decision has been taken about the road as yet.

The previous Administration recognised that there was a separate need to cater for people who live in the villages around Cambridge and who work in the city or at the science park. The solution to that was seen as the guided busway. That scheme was approved by the previous Administration way back in 2001 and construction commenced in 2007, yet it is still not open. It has become a very expensive project, with costs rising from £116 million in 2006 to an estimated £160 million now. That is more than three times the original estimate.

Delivery issues remain to be resolved between Cambridgeshire county council and the contractor, as my hon. Friend said. I know that he has concerns about the project; he expressed those in a parliamentary question, which I answered last month. There are clearly lessons to be learned from both the Cambridge and the Luton to Dunstable guided bus projects. That is why I have asked my officials to consider the history and cost structure of those projects. I have asked for a report by the end of September on that matter and associated matters relating to light rail. Many of those schemes have also come in significantly above budget or were cancelled by the previous Administration. We need to learn the lessons to ensure that that does not happen again.

Let me deal with the issue of tackling congestion in the city centre. First, I want to make it clear that building big expensive infrastructure is not the only answer to tackling congestion. I know that my hon. Friend shares my view that much more can be done to support sustainable travel. We can achieve a great deal by concentrating much more on local interventions that respond to local needs. That will mainly be achieved through the local transport plan process. As I highlighted in a recent speech at the Transport Times conference in Manchester, local transport plans remain the best way for authorities to plan and deliver their strategy for integrated, safe, sustainable and efficient transport in their areas.

However, in line with the coalition agreement to promote decentralisation and devolution of power to local government, my Department will no longer seek to intervene in how local authorities review their progress against local transport plans. That will be a matter entirely for them. After the spring 2011 deadline for renewal of the plans, reports or reviews will no longer be required for central Government to consider.

Local authorities are working hard to have their new plans in place by next April, and I encourage them to be creative and innovative in doing so. Cambridgeshire county council and the city council have done excellent work on sustainable travel in recent years, and I trust that their commitment to that cause and their working in partnership will continue. They have had considerable success in raising bus patronage locally through the development of park-and-ride sites. The traffic management scheme in the city centre, which my hon. Friend oversaw in a previous capacity, has been very successful in promoting safe cycling and walking and containing traffic growth.

If cycling is to succeed anywhere in the UK, it must succeed in Cambridge. Unlike my constituency, Cambridge is, after all, relatively flat and situated in the driest part of the country. Cycling is also the mode of choice for the large student population. With 18% of all journeys made by bike, Cambridge already has the highest level of cycling anywhere in the country. The aim is to increase that further. As a cycling demonstration town project participant, it is receiving some £3.6 million of extra funding for that from my Department. I would like to see the experiences of Cambridge applied to other places at the end of the project.

Enabling people to interchange easily from one public transport mode to another is fundamental in getting people out of their cars. Again, I am aware that Cambridge is at the forefront of that through the development of the station gateway project. That project will deliver a bus interchange facility right outside the main rail station. We are keen for such projects to expand and to be replicated throughout the country.

That leads me on to the issue of rail. Let me assure my hon. Friend that the present Government are committed to making the best use of our rail network, as part of our commitment to creating a low-carbon economy and to improving the travelling experience for passengers. I am pleased to note that Network Rail is expected to commence work shortly at Cambridge station to construct the new island platform. However, the estimated cost of £15 million is obviously high. I shall add in passing that the ministerial team in the Department are quite keen to get better value from Network Rail for some of these projects. That cost does seem to me rather expensive for a platform.

In any case, the new platform will provide much-needed extra station capacity to enable First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia to operate in a much more efficient and organised manner. The new platform is expected to be in operation by the end of next year. In addition, the completion of the Thameslink programme will give Cambridge faster journey times to London, access to St Pancras and many more direct connections to places south of the Thames.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the issue of new rolling stock for London to Cambridge services is under review by my Department. It is important that in ordering new trains, we get the very best value for money and that the specification is exactly right for the job that we want them to do. My hon. Friend will also be aware that stabling for the new trains was one of the factors taken into consideration in relation to the development of a new station at Chesterton, to which he referred. I know that he is very keen on that project. I appreciate that Chesterton station is regarded as important for the people of north Cambridge wishing to avoid the need to travel through the city centre and for people working at the science park. While the spending review is under way, I can give no assurances about the funding of that project, but I know that Cambridgeshire county council is working hard with Network Rail to develop various technical and funding options, and I welcome that.

Network Rail is also working hard to deliver another scheme that my hon. Friend supports-the gauge upgrading of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton rail line to take continental-size containers and hence get more freight off our roads and on to rail. He mentioned the opportunity for modal shift for freight from road to rail. Phase 1 of that complex scheme, which is being part-funded by the Government, Hutchison Ports UK and the European Commission, is nearing completion. When it is finished next year, the number of freight trains will increase to eight per day per direction, and when phase 2 is complete in 2014, up to 24 freight trains per day will be able to travel to Peterborough and hence the north. Further work is needed in control period 5, and Network Rail is working on that, but at this stage I can provide no certainty about funding. However, 24 freight trains a day in either direction means a lot of lorries off the roads.

The coalition agreement includes a commitment to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable, which includes reforming how decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritise, so that the benefits of low-carbon proposals are fully recognised. Work is going on in the Department and we hope to have something in place to enable us to reassess projects when the spending review is complete, so those two elements of work can come together.

Getting more freight off the roads and on to the railways is one way of doing what I have described. Investing in low-carbon buses is another. That is why, building on that policy framework and on the success of the first round of the green bus fund, I was pleased recently to announce a second round of the fund, worth £15 million, which will support the procurement of an additional 150 low-carbon buses in England. All transport authorities, including Cambridgeshire county council, are encouraged to submit a bid, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take that back to his county council.

The county council should, in identifying its needs and priorities, consider the full range of options available and the potential for attracting funding from sources other than public sector ones. Given the current financial climate, I cannot offer any assurance at this time about the future time scale for taking forward schemes identified, but reviewing the feasibility of options should mean that Cambridge is well placed to benefit from available investment when the financial position eases.

My hon. Friend asked about lorry road user charging. He will know that there is a commitment in the coalition agreement to take forward lorry road user charging. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mike Penning, who was in this Chamber a few minutes ago, is leading that work for the Department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge also mentioned road signs. A road sign review is under way. I have asked officials to note his comments on that issue to feed them into the road sign review. The object of the review is to make it easier for local authorities to get signage up that is sensible for their areas and consistent with an application of national standards so that people understand the signs if they come from elsewhere in the country. We want to make it easier to get signs up that suit local needs.

My hon. Friend mentioned powers to improve bus services. We have no plans at present to change the regulatory arrangements regarding buses, although the Competition Commission inquiry considering the architecture of the bus network and the structure of the industry is under way. It would be imprudent to take a decision either to loosen controls or to tighten them in advance of that reporting. We expect to have a draft report from the Competition Commission probably by December this year.

It is clear that we face a challenging period. Tough decisions have already been necessary to tackle the UK's budget deficit. The Government have identified their most urgent priority as tackling the deficit, and transport must play its part in that process. Only when the Government's spending review has been concluded will we be in a position to see what investment can be made, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to promoting low-carbon forms of transport. We are committed to sustainable transport-

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).