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24 Jan 2007 : Column 507WH—continued

3.50 pm

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): This is the second time today that I have been before you, Mr. Atkinson, although that phrase might suggest that I am in the role of defendant and that you are in the role of a stern magistrate. I do not think that I will pursue that route.

I thank the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) for his kind words, and I thank other hon. Members for their kind words, too. Long may they continue. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate, in which we have had a number of individual and distinguished contributions; there has not been a wildebeest in sight, intellectually. My hon. Friend shared with us—rightly or wrongly—the fact that he thought the subject through in his bath. It is a great privilege to be appearing before such a latter-day Archimedes on this occasion.

Our policies on innovation aim to maintain and improve the United Kingdom as a knowledge economy by encouraging the successful exploitation of ideas. Maybe that is as good a definition of innovation as any can suggest. Many of those ideas will emanate from a science base, and many will have science-based solutions. It is worth noting that, as colleagues have conceded, not all innovation is about science. Wherever ideas come from, we regard it as a priority to create the opportunities for interaction between knowledge creators and innovators.

As many Members present will know, the word “science” comes from the Latin word “scientia”—the pronunciation of the “c” depended on which side of the river one came from in those times—which means knowledge. That is a nice coincidence for us today, because in the United Kingdom we are trying to develop a knowledge economy—and therefore a knowledge society and a knowledge democracy, given some of the issues about society and science mentioned by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Globalisation means that we no longer expect to compete merely on price or
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to trade in traditional products alone. Indeed, more than 70 per cent. of the economy is in the service sectors. The UK is a truly modern global economy in prime position to take advantage of the opportunities presented. Innovation has contributed to our success in both manufacturing and services. We have open and free markets, we are global players and we stay competitive through innovation, hence the importance of the debate.

Innovation is obviously important. Only this week a report from McKinsey considering why New York is losing its lead as a financial centre highlighted that London now has a more attractive legal and regulatory environment—an environment that enables innovation in financial products. Many of the challenges that we are discussing are challenges for the private sector, but there are challenges for other sectors, too, including our learned professions. The Royal Society of Chemistry is an example of a leading professional body that has now put innovation at its core through its mission statements.

I want to focus on what the Government can do about all that to ensure that our economy remains competitive. I shall highlight some developments, almost by way of headlines, given the time that we have available. We are working across government to ensure that public sector procurement—my hon. Friend was looking for a figure, and it is worth more than £125 billion a year—stimulates innovative solutions. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury announced yesterday a series of reforms to help promote technological innovation and innovation in public services. Given the size of the procurement budget, in that way alone the Government can drive innovation.

A number of agencies play a role. We heard some critical comments about at least one regional development agency, but I believe that the RDAs’ innovation policies are working to address challenges in commercialisation, knowledge transfer, the promotion of innovation, the creation of networks and improvements in skills. Science and industry councils have been set up in each region to guide RDA innovation spending. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the work in his region. Innovative businesses need intellectual property protection and clarity on standards and measurement. The DTI and its agencies provide that clarity and protection. Of course, we are considering the implications of the Gowers review of intellectual property.

We are working with the Design Council, which is developing a network to improve supply and demand of creativity skills following the review of creativity by Sir George Cox. Design is crucial in terms of modern day products and competition. I look forward to learning more about the work of designers and the Design Council in the months to come. In December, the Leitch review identified the UK’s optimal skills mix in 2020. We will be working with the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, among others, to respond to that report.

We are at the forefront of EU thinking on innovation policy. The research and development scoreboard and value added scoreboard produced by the DTI allow businesses to benchmark themselves against peers. They have also enabled us to dig down into the reasons why, for a predominantly service sector economy such
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as ours, simple research and development measures are not enough for good policy development.

Knowledge transfer has been given a high profile since the Lambert review of business-university collaboration in 2003, the policy set out in the 10-year framework for science and innovation and the more recent updates of that framework. The business-led Technology Strategy Board is increasing the opportunities for business to exploit science and technology through collaborative research and developing the knowledge transfer networks. Of course, one is interested by the ideas that emanate from the distinguished review associated with the Conservative party. I shall not make quips about thinking in the Conservative party as an exciting piece of innovation that has started from the most unlikely sources; this has been a learned and distinguished debate, and it would be wrong to make any such quip.

In July, the Technology Strategy Board will become a non-departmental public body, which will improve its ability to operate with flexibility. I shall give two examples of its work. By supporting the integrated wing programme, a pioneering programme led by Airbus UK, the board is putting Britain at the forefront of next-generation, greener, cost-effective aircraft design. By working with a UK-based consortium of companies developing in-body micro-generators that will convert energy from human body movement into power for implanted medical devices, including pacemakers, electrical stimulators, instrumented joints and body area network applications—an example of our technology being at the forefront—the board is contributing not only to wealth creation, but to the welfare of people around the world.

Innovation platforms, which bring together business and government, are another important example of the work that is going on. Through the higher education innovation fund, the Government provide resources to all universities to increase knowledge transfer activity and business engagement. In addition to the oft-quoted growth in spin-out companies, HEIF has also led to a wider culture change in universities’ innovation activity.

I took careful note of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) about the research assessment exercise. We have to get the balance right between the absolute emphasis on pure and basic research, blue-skies thinking and the rest and the need to find measures to complement the well-accepted and traditional measures of academic excellence. This is not about one or the other, or about a conflict or a contest, but about searching for some complementary approach. That is important.

Research and development tax credits got a mention. They are important, but we shall consider some of the new evidence on that issue. I listened with care to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and to his thoughts about innovation. Of course, the contribution of the Bolton TIC was also notable. Indeed, we are working with the DFES to introduce innovation and entrepreneurship training to the school curriculum, with pilots starting last week. This has been an important debate, and one that I have enjoyed.

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Reddish South and Denton Stations

4 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Through you, Mr. Atkinson, I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me this debate.

The proposals set out by Network Rail in its route utilisation strategy consultation document to close Reddish South and Denton railway stations are of great concern to my constituents. The sad irony is that, at the moment, few if any of my constituents use those stations, although that is more to do with the current services. Nevertheless, my constituents recognise, as do I, the potential benefit of both stations in providing northern Stockport and south-west Tameside with a valuable commuter rail service—one that I contend could have a fruitful commercial future.

First, let me set out some of the historical background. Denton and Reddish South stations are situated on the Stockport to Stalybridge line, which runs across the south-east of the Greater Manchester conurbation. In years gone by, it was a busy line and for most of its length it had four tracks. The beauty of the line was that it enabled passenger services from south Manchester and beyond to link to other national and local services to the north. Historically, services into central Manchester were more fragmented than they are now. Services to the south left from Piccadilly, formerly known as London Road station; and services to the north, including inter-city and many trans-Pennine services, left from Manchester Victoria station.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He speaks of services to the south, which have great relevance to many cities in the south. For instance, the mainline route from Brighton to Manchester is currently under threat of closure due to rail line utilisation. Does he see that as relevant to cities in the south, such as mine?

Andrew Gwynne: I do. One problem that I shall deal with later is the capacity problem of trains going to Manchester Piccadilly. I contend that if we transferred some of the local services from Piccadilly to Manchester Victoria, using the line through Denton and Reddish South, capacity to Manchester Piccadilly would be increased and there would be more scope for services from the south of England.

In years gone by, passengers arriving at Manchester Piccadilly often had to get other mainline services from Victoria. Today, Piccadilly is the main inter-city station and Victoria serves mainly the local catchment area. However, in those days, people could use the Stockport to Stalybridge line and its branches to access services from the north or south without going into the city centre and then having to traipse to the other station. As patterns of travel have altered, and given that most services were linked into Piccadilly, so the number of people using the Stockport to Stalybridge line has dwindled. Even so, until 1991 the line served as a convenient link from Stockport in gaining access to trans-Pennine services at Stalybridge.

Another factor led to the decline of Denton station—its location. Ironically, it is this station’s location that today makes it attractive, but that was not
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the case until fairly recently, and I will explain why. Denton station is not located at the heart of the community. It is about a mile from Crown Point, Denton’s town centre, and is bounded by industrial units, reservoir land and the M67 motorway, which was built in 1981 and which cuts right through the centre of the town.

Immediately adjacent to the site is Denton roundabout, where the M67, the M60 Manchester orbital motorway and the A57, the main road into Manchester city centre, all meet. Denton station has no obvious catchment area or hinterland from which it can sustain a viable commuter service. However, all is not what it seems, and I shall explain why later. The other station, Reddish South, is completely the opposite. Despite its misleading name, it is located in the heart of Reddish district centre and is surrounded by shops and houses. It has a good catchment area, and given a decent service, it could easily have a viable future. There is also scope for a local park-and-ride facility at the station.

In 1991 everything changed. Because of the dwindling number of passengers travelling from Stockport to Stalybridge, British Rail effectively closed the line and stations by declaring it to be a parliamentary line. For the past 16 years, therefore, we have been blessed with just one train a week travelling in just one direction, with Reddish South and Denton stations being request-only stops. So pathetic is the service that one cannot get a return ticket from Stalybridge to Stockport. Indeed, only train enthusiasts ride on the now infamous “ghost train” service.

The Minster must be asking why there has been such a fuss to save our stations. The answer, as I will show, is because a viable option is screaming at us that would cost very little to implement. One of the early decisions of this Labour Government, on coming to power in 1997, was to initiate extensive transport studies in parts of the country that were experiencing significant congestion problems. The aim of those studies was to consider the problem in the round and to develop an approach that was an argument not merely for more road building, but for developing public transport alongside other infrastructure projects in order to give people a viable alternative to the motor car.

One of the studies commissioned by the Government was the south-east Manchester multi-modal study, or SEMMMS. Reddish and Denton are both covered by SEMMMS. When it comes to judging Network Rail’s proposals for the closure of the two railway stations, I would argue that that should be done alongside the aims and objectives of SEMMMS, which in its 2001 report calls for the restoration of passenger services on that line to be considered.

I return to Denton station. I might have given the Minister the idea that it has a poor location. Nothing could be further from the truth. I said that Denton station lies adjacent to the junction of the M60, M67 and A57. SEMMMS identified that roundabout as being at junction capacity, with no scope to improve it without spending massive capital sums, and said that it was a major contributor to traffic congestion through Tameside. Today, we hear that Greater Manchester may introduce a congestion charge on the main routes into the city centre as part of its transport innovation
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fund submission. Undoubtedly, that would have to include the A57. If so, investment in the railway line and a park-and-ride option are crucial. Councillor Roger Jones, chairman of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, is quoted in the local papers as saying:

I echo his view.

Given that much traffic is heading into or away from Manchester at peak times, scope surely exists for a major strategic park-and-ride facility to be developed alongside that junction. There are two possible sites: the spare land next to the reservoirs, or spare capacity at the Sainsbury’s superstore immediately to the south of the motorway junction with the A57. Indeed, use of private land for park-and-ride has already been pioneered by the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive at the Siemens site in south Manchester.

Again, some brief background information might help. When retail planning permission was applied for in 1988, it was for a Sainsbury’s store and a Children’s World store, but the latter was never built. However, the car park was constructed as originally planned—for both stores—so even on the busiest trading days of the year it is at least one third empty. The car park could be linked to the station by creating a well-lit footpath, utilising a redundant rail bridge under the M67. I have not formally approached Sainsbury, but I believe it would be a real advantage to the company; not only it would utilise the spare capacity in the car park, but some of those who use the parking will go on to shop in the store or use the on-site petrol station.

The real issue when arguing against the closures is that preserving the status quo or even increasing the number of trains to Stalybridge and providing a return option will not solve the problem. With the best will in the world, a large number of people from Stockport, Reddish and Denton do not wish or do not need to go to Stalybridge. The vast majority of traffic goes into Manchester and, to a lesser extent, into Stockport. That is where many of my constituents work or shop, and they frequently go there.

What is the scope for a commuter service into Manchester using those routes? I would argue that it is very good, and that is what I have been calling for. It would be easy to have a local service running from Stockport along the Stalybridge line through Reddish South and Denton, where we could have a strategic park-and-ride for south-east Manchester. Just past Denton station is an existing rail link connecting the Stalybridge line with the existing Ashton to Manchester Victoria line. I think that it is known as the Crowthorne curve. Indeed, when engineering works take place on the line between Piccadilly and Stockport, that route is used to redirect passenger services into Victoria.

Furthermore, as there is a major rail capacity problem at Piccadilly, which is not easy to resolve, and Virgin wishes to increase the number of trains on the west coast main line, it may be desirable for more local services to link into Victoria instead. One further benefit to that suggestion is that it would provide a sizeable section of south-east Manchester with an alternative to road travel. Reddish and Denton have
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poor public transport links, and given the considerable congestion identified by SEMMMS, a rail link into Manchester is more than just a convenience; it is a necessity. That is even more the case because it would serve a considerable catchment area, on which the proposed Metrolink big bang will not have the slightest impact. Those are the plans that I have put formally to Network Rail in private meetings and as part of the consultation exercise.

Ms Barlow: I give my best wishes to my hon. Friend in his plans. He has mentioned park-and-ride on several occasions. Would he also consider introducing proposals for bike-and-ride? During my visit to his constituency last September, I noticed that many of his constituents were on bicycles. May I request that if he is successful in his plans, trains will be provided with space for bicycles so that people can cycle to the station and are not forced to leave their bike at home because there is no space on the train during peak times—as many of my constituents have to do?

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend makes a genuine point. One of the issues identified by Greater Manchester passenger transport authority as part of its transport innovation fund submission is that cycle usage in Greater Manchester is in decline because of congestion on the roads. I know that cycle users raise the issue of cycle access on the rails locally with MPs, particularly regarding the Metrolink.

I place on the official record my thanks and appreciation to the people of Reddish and Denton who have shown their support for the campaign, and to the local Labour councillors who are fighting hard in their areas—particularly Councillors Walter Brett and Brenda Warrington. We have also won the support of the Labour-controlled Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. On Monday I received a letter from Councillor Roger Jones, the chair, in which he states that the GMPTA is

I also thank Tameside Councillors Alan Whitehead and Mike Smith, and Stockport Councillor Maureen Rowles, who are also members of the GMPTA, for their support for keeping Reddish South and Denton stations open—I am very grateful.

I should also place on record my grudging thanks to the belated support of Liberal Democrat Stockport council, which spent 17 days desperately looking for a different plan before realising that there was none. It then signed up to a letter with an identical proposal to mine and that of Stockport Labour group. That was a brief but unfortunate episode in the campaign. However, it was not surprising given that the executive member for transport, Councillor David Goddard, was once a South Reddish Labour councillor who lost his principles in order to pick up an extra allowance. It is in his character not to agree with his former party on anything, which is a pity, but at least the borough is now singing from the same hymn sheet.

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