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High Speed 2 (Buckinghamshire)

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise with the Minister what I am sure he will be the first to appreciate is likely to be the first of a considerable number of representations made to Ministers in Parliament about the impact of the Government’s preferred route for the proposed high-speed railway. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) are present. I have spoken to the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, because of his office as Speaker, cannot take part directly in debates. He is very actively pursuing the interests of his constituents in respect of the impact of the preferred route on the Buckingham constituency.

I believe that the route that the Government have said they prefer will seriously and irreparably damage the quality of my constituents’ lives and the landscape of the Chiltern hills. Two aspects of the proposed route caused me particular dismay once I began to inspect the details. First, the plan for a viaduct to carry the railway around the western perimeter of Aylesbury, coming at the nearest point just 70 metres from people’s homes, looks certain to cause massive damage to the quality of life of many hundreds of my constituents.

Secondly, I share the sense of outrage expressed to me in letters, e-mails and conversations with constituents since the Secretary of State’s announcement on 11 March that the Government plan to route the line through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—landscape that successive Governments, whether Labour or Conservative, have designated as of exceptional national importance.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for agreeing that I could intervene in this short debate. Even in the report that has been given to the Secretary of State, the first point made in chapter 4.2.39 on the quality of life and the landscape and townscape is that the

“main landscape impact of HS2 would occur in the Chiltern Hills”.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is dismaying that when HS2 Ltd made its proposals to the Government, not just the preferred route but even the runner-up were set to carve a swathe of destruction through the centre of the area of outstanding natural beauty. In my constituency, the villages of Great Missenden, South Heath and Wendover would be drastically affected. I should also tell the Minister that in the past 24 hours I have received the first reaction to the proposal from the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, which argues that the preferred route would have both a direct and an indirect impact on woodland sites—predominantly ancient woodlands—and on wetland sites, including a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest on the border between Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

To rub salt into the wound for my constituents and for the county of Buckinghamshire as a whole, the Government’s proposal seems to be all pain and no gain—no direct benefit at all—for people living in Buckinghamshire. There is to be no improvement to the infrastructure used by local people, just years of disruption during the construction phase and permanent damage to both our rural and our urban environments. Indeed, I find it remarkable that the same Government who have designated Aylesbury as a growth area, who are insisting that the town provides many thousands of additional homes and who at the same time have refused to plan for the transport infrastructure to sustain that development now announce plans for a fantastically expensive piece of infrastructure that will bypass the very place that the Government have designated for growth.

As we are at the start of what is likely to be a long process, I want today to concentrate on putting to the Minister a limited number of questions on issues that constituents have been raising directly with me in the past 10 days. First, I should like him to say something about the public consultation, which I understand is scheduled to begin in October. What exactly will be the scope of that consultation? The Secretary of State, in his recent letter to me, stated that both the principle of a new high-speed rail line and the question of a route would depend on the outcome of the consultation. I infer from those comments that the Government accept that it is perfectly in order for people, during the consultation process, to propose alternative routes or, indeed, to challenge the principle of HS2 altogether. I hope that the Minister will today confirm that that is the case—that my understanding is correct—and that the Government do not intend to begin drafting a hybrid Bill until the consultation and the subsequent period of reflection and appraisal to which the Secretary of State has referred have passed.

Secondly, what will be the nature of the public consultation? Of course, a number of bodies such as the Chilterns Conservation Board—the statutory agency to safeguard the environment of the Chilterns AONB—the Chiltern Society and the parish, town, district and county councils along the route will make representations, and I know already that local residents are organising themselves into community campaigns in order to prepare for the consultation. However, I want the Government not only to listen to public representations, but to be proactive and to ensure that every resident in the affected neighbourhoods is contacted and both encouraged and enabled to take part.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be reassured that the Department for Transport is paying attention to the detail in this case, because the consultation document that has already been issued on the exceptional hardship scheme relates to a consultation period that is less than the 12 weeks recommended by the Government, and the consultation will most likely take place over a period of purdah and therefore contravene some interesting rules on consultations? Also, Buckinghamshire county council was completely omitted from the list of individual local authorities that were part of the list of consultees. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of attention to detail that causes the major county council to be missed off is rather alarming?

I hope that that is a lesson that the Minister and his Department will take on board. The point that my hon. Friend makes about the impact that the period of purdah around the general election campaign can have on public consultations and the ability of the Government machine to publicise those consultations is something to which I hope that Ministers will pay attention. It would be outrageous if people in effect were to lose a number of weeks of publicity for the consultations because of the election. The obvious thing to do would be to extend the consultation period by the appropriate number of weeks.

I hope, too, that Ministers will make a personal commitment to come to my constituency and to others along the route to hear for themselves the views of the people whom their policies will affect so dramatically. I should perhaps add that as the preferred route in my constituency runs within 2 miles of Chequers, I think it likely that whoever holds the office of Prime Minister can expect to have his ear well and truly bent by his neighbours.

Lastly on this point, how long will the public consultation last? A period of six months is being talked about. That seems a very short time in which to consult seriously people right along the proposed route from Euston to Birmingham, let alone to examine the options beyond Birmingham, to which the White Paper, entitled “High Speed Rail”, refers. In addition to the impact of the general election campaign, Christmas and the new year seem likely to fall in the middle of the Government’s proposed consultation on the preferred route, which would compress the notional six-month timetable even more in practice. There is already a lot of public cynicism about the consultation, and there is an expectation that it is being done simply for show, so I look to the Minister to give me the strongest possible assurance that those public fears are mistaken.

People will want and need access to a lot of detailed information ahead of October, so that they can prepare their arguments. If at all possible, I want the public consultation to take place on the basis of arguments and debate about a commonly agreed set of facts. To take one obvious example, little information is as yet available to show how much noise would be heard by people living along the route. I talked to some of the environmental pressure groups in my constituency this morning, and they told me that HS2 Ltd has so far been rather reluctant to divulge any of the detail about its assumptions about noise levels and noise footprints. I know that that would be a difficult, technical and complicated bit of work, because ever since I was elected, I have had to deal with the issue of the noise from the M40, which cuts through the village of Stokenchurch, at the southern end of my constituency. However, people have a right to know not just the conclusions that have been reached by HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport, but the assumptions and background work on which those conclusions were based. If there is a reluctance to come forward with that detailed information, people will understandably assume the worst. It will be up to Ministers to insist that the Department, HS2 Ltd and Network Rail, which has done its own work on the high-speed proposal, are open with the public.

If the project goes ahead, on whatever route, it is vital that the Government show that they have learned lessons from the experience of building the high-speed channel tunnel link through Kent. A few hours ago, I talked to Mr. Patrick Begg, the regional director of the National Trust, who said that, in environmental terms, the High Speed 1 process was brutal, poorly conceived and done on the cheap. To give a specific example, my local wildlife trust says that one lesson from High Speed 1 is that the indirect impact on woodland adjacent to the line in Kent was more severe than had been estimated before construction because of interference with the flow of surface water. Local councillors in my constituency, who have been in contact with their counterparts in Kent, were warned that the impact during construction went far wider than the immediate line of route. One was warned that he should expect every village and country lane within four or five miles of the route to be wrecked for some years while the line was built.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen this, but I want to bring to his attention “News of the Woods”. It is produced by the Chiltern Woodlands Project, and the Minister could well look at it. The project has helpfully produced the “Special Trees and Woods” interactive website at The website shows the enormous concentration of special trees and woods directly along the route that Lord Adonis has chosen for the route.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point.

It is pretty obvious that a construction project of such a scale will need depots for building materials, arrangements for removing spoil and access over a long period for large numbers of heavy vehicles and plant. The Government need to be straight with people about what would be involved during construction, and they need to pledge that country lanes and the rural landscape in the area surrounding the route will be restored to their previous appearance after construction.

Finally, on compensation, many people are distraught because their properties have been utterly blighted. I know of elderly people who were relying on the value of their home to provide the capital to finance their care home fees in the not-too-distant future. I welcome the Government’s proposal of an interim scheme to help people whose properties are blighted before the statutory provisions come into force. Why, however, is the scheme so narrow in scope and so niggardly in terms of the compensation offered? It is right that owner-occupiers should be helped, but business premises are excluded from the current proposals, even though owners may have plans to sell and retire. Without the proceeds from such sales, those owners will not be able to retire.

Furthermore, why should compensation be capped at 85 per cent. of the market value? People in Buckinghamshire did not ask for the line and they get no benefit from it at all. If the Government believe that it is in the overriding national interest that the scheme should go ahead and that my constituents must accept a massive sacrifice for the greater national good, it is a matter of justice that my constituents should be properly and fully compensated for what they stand to lose.

I endorse all the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). We can see the level of interest in the debate by the presence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who are sitting alongside us, but who are precluded from speaking because of the brevity of the debate.

I have a few simple questions for the Minister. First, no environmental impact assessment has been published. I had a meeting with his boss, Lord Adonis, the other day and I was told that he had no intention of publishing an impact assessment before the general election. How can that be right? When can we expect to see the impact assessment for the Chilterns?

That is of particular relevance to my constituency, as the part of it that the railway slices through is an environmentally sensitive area and a nature reserve. In the absence of an assessment, it is difficult to know what the impact will be on that very sensitive part of the Colne valley.

Secondly, I would like to know what account the Department and the Minister have taken of section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I hope that he will be able to tell me—it should not be too difficult for him.

Finally, I asked the Secretary of State to visit my constituency to speak directly to constituents, who are rightly alarmed about the proposal coming so close to a general election. Lord Adonis told me that he has

“limited diary space in the coming weeks”

but will

“treat all members fairly…after the General Election.”

As Lord Adonis does not need to face a general election, and as the Department for Transport will presumably continue its work, will the Minister kindly go back to him to ask whether, in the Secretary of State’s absence, another Minister could attend some of the public meetings in my constituency, or failing that, whether officials from the Department could come to give an explanation?

That is only fair, given that the Government have chosen to make their announcement so close to a general election. The Minister and I are both elected Members, and he knows as well as I do that Members will be cut off during the election from asking the Government questions and from getting research from the House of Commons Library. For Members whose constituencies along the line of the route will be so badly affected, the timing of the proposals is cynical and callous.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on not only securing the debate, but raising his legitimate concerns in a very tempered manner, notwithstanding the passion that he demonstrated during his short speech.

Four Members of Parliament are present, two of whom have not been able to make speeches because of the brevity of this Adjournment debate. However, I know that the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) are equally concerned about some of the challenges and issues raised by the preferred route for HS2 and the implications for their constituents. They are of course welcome to meet me or the Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, to discuss any concerns that they have directly, as I know the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has. The hon. Member for Aylesbury has of course also raised the issues on the Floor of the House and put on record the concerns for his constituents that he spotted straight away when the announcement was made on 11 March.

Before I turn to the specific effects of the Government’s proposals on Buckinghamshire and to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I want to explain briefly why the Government believe that high-speed rail is the best way to enhance our inter-urban transport networks. In considering a project such as this, as hon. Members will appreciate, it is vital to balance the significant benefits that it will bring to the country with the impacts that it may have at local level.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the key inter-urban routes linking our major cities will become increasingly crowded and congested, with negative effects for both the economy and society. A new high-speed line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester, the east midlands, Sheffield, and Leeds could more than treble capacity on the congested west coast main line corridor, as well as improving journey times between major cities and releasing capacity on existing rail lines for additional commuter services and freight, particularly in the growth areas that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

In addition, by linking the proposed core high-speed rail network into the existing west coast and east coast main lines, it would be possible to provide high-speed services to other destinations such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh from the outset. The proposed network could, for instance, reduce journey times from Glasgow to London to as little as 3 hours 30 minutes, creating significant scope for modal shift from aviation to rail.

The modelling carried out by HS2 Ltd suggests that a high-speed line from London to Birmingham alone could provide benefits for the UK totalling over £29 billion and up to £32 billion if wider economic benefits such as agglomeration effects are taken into account. A more extensive network, such as the Y-shaped network proposed by the Government, would bring more significant benefits still. It would shrink journey times further, enable the UK’s city economies to function more effectively together, and address the weaknesses of the current Victorian rail network, by providing fast and efficient links on both sides of the Pennines.

However, I accept that any infrastructure project of such a size will have some impacts at a local level, and I understand fully the concerns of hon. Members and their constituents about the effect that HS2 Ltd’s recommended route could have on the county of Buckinghamshire. First, and most importantly—on the consultation point—I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government have not yet taken any decision on either whether a line such as this should be built or what route it should take. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s first question, everything is up for grabs. When his constituents respond to the formal consultation, they should give their views about whether they think there should be a high-speed link at all, the preferred route and any additional points they may want to make. It is important that I should underscore that.

No such decision could possibly be taken without prior public consultation, and the Command Paper that we published on 11 March makes it quite clear that we will begin consultation in the autumn. As has been commented on, it will last up to six months, although it could last longer. I take on board the legitimate points raised on the consultation in relation to the exceptional hardship scheme, and the effect of purdah. I should like to write in reply to all the hon. Members present, because they have raised legitimate concerns about the effect that that could have on local authorities’ or central Government’s ability to raise awareness. Another point that was raised was the possible knock-on effect on an autumn formal consultation.

The consultation would have an impact on our overall strategy for high-speed rail and on the specific recommendations made by HS2 Ltd. As hon. Members will be aware—I know that they have all read the report from HS2 Ltd—a number of preferred routes were considered, and the preferred route, which was recommended by HS2 Ltd, was the option whose consequences for hon. Members’ constituents has been recognised: route 3.

I have asked HS2 Ltd to carry out pre-consultation engagement with stakeholders such as local authorities. I accept and apologise for the fact that Buckinghamshire county council was inadvertently omitted from the list for the exceptional hardship scheme. I confirm, to reassure the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, that it has now received the documents.

Will the Minister also write to us to let us know what moneys will be available to local community groups and councils, who will be undertaking vast amounts of extra work, which will affect their budgets? Of course, some of our smaller voluntary organisations will not be able to muster what they need to make a case for another route, and I hope that moneys will be forthcoming from the Minister to assist the local authorities and those organisations.

The hon. Lady will be aware that the pre-consultation engagements that are being undertaken are over and above what is required for a major infrastructure project such as this, but it is important that we should listen to local communities’ concerns. For example, if there is concern that they have not had access to the CD-ROMs that are available, or the documents or maps, we should be happy to look into that. I know that at the public meetings that have already taken place the Department has provided materials, but I ask hon. Members to let me know if there are problems getting materials from the Department for Transport or HS2 Ltd.

They key thing during the pre-consultation engagement is to inform effective communication of the consultation and its materials, particularly in areas that are likely to be most affected by the development proposals. Furthermore, even if the Government were to proceed, legislation would be required before construction could begin, providing those affected by any future line with a further opportunity to influence its development. We need to continue to ensure that all constituents have an opportunity to respond. If there is concern that some do not have the means, or that local authorities are limited in their capacity to do so, they need to let us know their concerns, which we shall try to address to make sure that as many people as possible respond both to the pre-consultation engagement and the formal consultation that begins in the autumn. There will be further consultation thereafter.

The route that HS2 Ltd has recommended would be straighter and faster than the other options, maximising its benefits for the country, but it also has a number of other advantages. Roughly a third of its route through the Chilterns is in tunnel, reducing its impacts on the local environment, and for more than half of that part of its route that is on the surface in the Chilterns, it follows existing transport corridors, notably the A413 corridor, which contains both a dual carriageway and the current Chiltern line. In contrast, while other options may also use extensive tunnelling in the Chilterns, on the surface they will run through open countryside. Indeed, even the most promising alternative identified by HS2 Ltd would still require a viaduct to be built across the picturesque Hughenden valley.

The route recommended by HS2 Ltd would also have a lower impact than the most promising alternative in terms of ground-borne noise and the isolation of settlements. A question was raised in the debate about noise, and among the things that we have asked HS2 Ltd to do is further mitigation work with respect to the impact on residents. The Secretary of State was not persuaded that HS2 Ltd had tried as hard as it could to mitigate some of the possible effects on residents. An aspect of that is the effect of modern technology in reducing noise. That is one reason for the delay in the publication of the environmental impact assessment and the appraisal of sustainability. I hope that when that is available, before the formal consultation, it will deal with some of the points that hon. Members have raised, and that improvements will have been made by HS2 Ltd to mitigate even further some of the possible disruption to residents. For the reasons I have given, the Government are of the view that HS2 Ltd’s recommended route appears on balance to be the best option, although we will clearly take into account the responses to consultation before any final decision is taken.

Hon. Members raised a number of questions. I have a long speech, which I have not read because I am keen to deal with them. My officials have taken a note of all the questions and I shall write to hon. Members in the next few days. If they have further questions I am happy, as is the Secretary of State, to meet them. He has already met a number of MPs in the past week or so, and has met the Chilterns Conservation Board, and will continue to engage on the issue. It is important that no constituent should feel that their voice has not been heard.

Finally, we have learned the lessons of previous major infrastructure projects, including High Speed 1 and Crossrail, which is taking place right now. We are learning lessons all the time from Crossrail. We are trying to ensure that in the process of building High Speed 2 we mitigate any problems caused to residents who are local to whatever route is chosen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury again on securing the debate, which I expect will be the first of many.