It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Peter Aldous on securing the debate. We co-chair the all-party group, and he has excellently described the work it has done since it was inaugurated just over a year ago. It is truly cross-party. Although the issue of what defines the east is sometimes a matter for debate, I strongly believe that, given that sub-national transport bodies are emerging in other parts of the country, as well as in our own region, it is in our very best interests to work together in the east. That is particularly important, given its geographical proximity to London. Although the east is, by many measures, an affluent area, if the wealth generated by people commuting to London is taken out, the figures suddenly reflect what we actually see on the ground in much of the region: in many places, for many people, life is a daily struggle. I will use the old six-county definition of the east, which many of us still hold dear.
The east is indeed a net contributor to the UK economy and the Treasury, and its industries are world-leading. In my constituency of Cambridge, we have life sciences and tech—I do not need to rehearse the arguments. However, the region is not without its challenges, which were outlined very effectively in the Budget submission. There is a need for more housing, given that so many are priced out of it. Just last week, it was shown that my city of Cambridge is one of the most expensive places for young people in the ratio between income and rent, and buying is almost out of the question for most people. The need for improved transport and infrastructure is well known. We also have a future skills deficit, which risks causing employment growth to slow and eventually to reverse—and, indeed, possibly worse than that.
Those issues are very well explained in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough independent economic review, which the Business Secretary and the Mayor of the combined authority launched in London yesterday. It was produced by a high-powered commission chaired by Dame Kate Barker, and it high-powered and knowledgeable commissioners include Lord Willetts and renowned telecoms entrepreneur David Cleevely from Cambridge. I hope Ministers will look closely at its work.
The review points out that, without the right tools to tackle these issues, employment growth in Cambridge could level off in the next couple of years, and there is the risk that it will go into reverse after 2031. Most people would find it surprising to learn that there is a danger that big businesses in the area may have to move away. The review’s conclusions are clear: future prosperity is not guaranteed, and if action on transport, housing, infrastructure and skills is not taken soon, there will be adverse effects not just for Cambridge or for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, but for the wider region and the whole of the UK economy.
The review rightly highlights the need to spread wealth more fairly and protect all that makes areas such as Cambridge so special for people. That is a very important point. It is about not just the traditional measure of growth—just more—but doing things better, being more productive and improving the quality of life for everyone. Our skilled workforce has been the driving factor in Cambridgeshire’s success in recent years, but given that our future relationship with the EU is uncertain, a failure to make the right investment in skills and infrastructure could cause internationally focused businesses to look elsewhere.
I have inevitably emphasised Cambridge so far, but those lessons hold good for much of the rest of the region. I believe that cities will be the driver within the region, but their relationship with the rural—or, perhaps more accurately, semi-rural—areas and market towns is vital. Skills and labour will be essential in our future relationship with the EU, not least because the agricultural sector relies so heavily on seasonal workers.
Transport is a huge issue, of course. The BBC’s Andrew Sinclair recently pointed out that it can take as long to travel the 110 miles from Norwich to London as the 220 miles from London to Liverpool. We desperately need to unlock transport infrastructure across our region to improve our productivity.
There are things we can do. For instance, I am told that digital signalling on our rail network would cost about £1 billion, but the benefits to quality of life and increased productivity would pay that sum back many times over. It does not require building new lines and upsetting people all over the place; it is about using the existing capacity better. It is the same message again: we should improve productivity, not just of people but of assets. If we can improve our links from places such as Cambridge though Stansted to London, we will create vital connections to the wider world.
Although our councils are struggling horribly with underfunding at the moment—it is frankly a disgrace that Cambridgeshire County Council has been reduced to forcing staff to take unpaid leave at Christmas—our ask is slightly unique, in that it is not always for more funds. We want the means to raise our own revenue. I used my first speech in the House three and a half years ago to speak not about glamorous issues but about the slightly arcane subject of tax increment financing. That and land value capture, which the Mayor of the combined authority has argued for, could unlock the investment needed. It would not cost the Treasury. We are prepared to take on the risk. The benefit sharing scheme got so close to being approved by the Treasury, but it was killed. We just need the authority and the tools to get on with the job—to borrow a phrase—of opening up access to jobs, skills and housing.
The east is a region with enormous potential, but we are reaching the point at which business as usual is not enough. Future prosperity has to be earned, but it also has to be shared fairly. Many in the east are up for the challenge, but we need the Government to work with us.