Strategic Transport (Cambridge)

Part of the debate – 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.