George Freeman urges Government support for East Anglian rail prospectus
3rd July 2012
George Freeman calls on the Government to back the rail prospectus “Once in a Generation” which sets out a long-term vision for the East Anglian rail network to support economic growth in the region.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I add my voice to those congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on our behalf. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) on leading the choreography to pull us all together, which is no easy task. I add my name to those of hon. Members who mentioned the local enterprise partnership, Abellio and Network Rail, who have all worked closely with us to make sure that the document has their active support and their approval of the measures within it as realistic. Jonathan Denby of Abellio has been a powerful force in helping to shape and drive the matter.
The prospectus sets out an ambitious, long-term vision for the East Anglian rail network. First and foremost, for far too long, commuters have had to put up with unacceptable under-investment in a network that they have paid for many times over. I want to focus on the importance of the East Anglia rail network in underpinning our modern economy.
Before coming to Parliament, I spent 15 years in East Anglia helping to build, finance and manage fast-growth science and technology businesses around Cambridge and Norwich. I know well and can testify to the growth potential in the area to which other hon. Members have referred, and which the Government are recognising in a number of their initiatives for an innovation-led recovery. They have powerfully—rightly in my view—set out the need for us to adopt a different model of economic growth and development in the light of the crisis that we inherited. It is a more balanced model of development driven much more from the regions and by business with finance following business growth, and without everyone having to commute to London to feed the banking machine, which is free to support and grow real businesses around the country, particularly drawing on our skills in the knowledge economy, whether life sciences, the digital economy, clean energy, food, nutrition or agriculture.
As hon. Members know, no region is better equipped than East Anglia to grab that opportunity, and to lead a new model of economic growth. Since the war—for far too long—East Anglia has been treated, seemingly, by successive Administrations as an area that can be taken for granted and from which people will commute to London, however poor the investment. Alternatively, it is seen as something of a rural backwater for retirees and house dumping when London targets need to be accommodated.
The area is ready to rise and do something more for this country. It is building great businesses across the board, but it cannot do that without infrastructure. That is why a coalition of Norfolk MPs, and those from across East Anglia more widely, are coming to the Government with a central message: we do not want a handout; give us a way in and a way out and we will deliver sustainable growth.
Fast modern rail is crucial to modern economies around the world for a number of reasons. We live in a global economy, and every start-up business in our area needs to think globally. Fast rail is a crucial link to our airports at Stansted and Norwich, as well as other London hubs, and it is crucial if we are to link the City of London’s world-class financial expertise to businesses in those clusters. In life sciences, for example—my area of expertise—if we do not link better Oxford, Cambridge and Norwich to London, so that people can fly in from around the world, to visit companies, scientists and investors in these areas, we will not unlock our full potential. I like to think that in due course, our Cambridge-Norwich line might be part of a wider emphasis on a Oxford-Cambridge-Norwich railway that links the life sciences.
As we heard in an eloquent speech from my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the cost of the gridlock that is East Anglia on an average morning or evening comes to £1 billion a year. People are sitting in cars and trains going nowhere in an area that has a lot more to offer.
Finally, Cambridge sits at the heart of the region that has the potential to drive global growth. As I know well because I was working there at the time, perhaps the most powerful thing that happened to unlock Cambridge’s growth—described eloquently as the “Cambridge phenomenon”—was the improvement of fast rail links to London, and principally the two hourly non-stop service. It became known as the “VC Express” or the “Cambridge Flyer”, and it dramatically shortened not only travel times, but cultural perceptions of the distance between Cambridge and London. Investors in London started jumping on the train and popping up to Cambridge for a morning to meet and view interesting companies. That is not happening at the moment in Ipswich, Norwich and other areas, but it could.
As we have heard, our region has been woefully neglected over the years. It was heartening to hear the Minister and the Secretary of State recognise at the highest level the need to balance rail expenditure between areas and tackle regional discrimination. It has also been recognised that the area is a net contributor to the Treasury, and with infrastructure we could deliver growth and sustainable development.
I would like to put down a marker. If the Government are thinking about pilot schemes for integrating the train operating companies with Network Rail to drive new models of more integrated planning, as we mention in the prospectus, we would like East Anglia to be considered for any such initiative.
We will not build a high-quality economy and attract and retain world-class talent if we allow our area to become a giant housing estate, with commuters condemned to traffic and gridlock. That is especially important to residents in my constituency of Mid Norfolk which sits, as the Minister may know, between Cambridge and Thetford on the Cambridge to Norwich line. Average incomes in my constituency are below £20,000—well below the national average. It is a very rural area that some might describe as something of a backwater in terms of national communications. It sits in the middle of the only county that is not yet connected to the national trunk road system, but it is zoned for massive housing growth, particularly in Wymondham and Attleborough, as well as further down the Cambridge-Norwich line in Thetford and Brandon.
The towns of Wymondham and Attleborough are happy to grow, but they want infrastructure so that growth is sustainable and will not be allowed to damage and undermine their quality of life. The railway sits at the heart of that challenge. If we simply build houses, and plan on the basis that everybody will drive, the morning after our beloved A11 is opened in its newly dualled state, it will quickly become a car park. The A11 needs to be the artery of East Anglia, but that will require more people in new homes to jump on the train to Cambridge, Norwich, Thetford or Ely in the morning.
The Minister will not be surprised that I mention the Ely North junction. It is the key bottleneck in plans to unlock the Cambridge-Norwich railway that was reopened less than a decade ago. The plans have strong cross-party support, but the junction is a bottleneck on the Cambridge-Norwich line, the Fen line and the freight line. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State have been at pains to listen to the problem, and we are grateful for the time and trouble that they have taken. The Minister’s support on this issue has been crucial, and we hugely look forward to her reply.