Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this Adjournment debate on the principal infrastructure project of our time: High Speed Rail 2. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.
The railway system of Great Britain is the oldest in the world. It developed from a patchwork of private local rail links provided by entrepreneurs, and via amalgamations, temporary state control, nationalisation, highly regulated privatisation and part-renationalisation it became today’s system, which is, as one of my colleagues on the Transport Committee has said, “neither fish nor fowl”.
It seems that this country has tried every conceivable governance model for rail, yet the subject remains contentious. I should like to deal with three questions. First, should a high-speed rail route run through Buckinghamshire—specifically, the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—against the wishes of local people? Secondly, should any area of the country be forced to accept high-speed rail? Thirdly, if transport resources and capital are scarce, what is the best approach to relieving that scarcity? I intend to demonstrate that High Speed 2 should not be run through Buckinghamshire or any area of the country and that a new, more classically Liberal and Conservative approach should be taken towards British transport policy.
I acknowledge the help and support of my Buckinghamshire parliamentary colleagues in preparing this speech. However, I have not sought their approval for this final version. My colleagues in the Government have emphasised that their opposition does not necessarily extend beyond the route. I also acknowledge the large number of high-quality submissions I have received from the people of Buckinghamshire. I am sorry that time has prevented me from including all their important points.
I should like to make clear my support for the Government’s intent. I am certain that the Government—the Transport team in particular—are fully committed to this country’s economic renewal and all-round success, and I applaud them for it. I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming that the public consultation will cover not just the route, but the strategic case for high-speed rail. I am relieved that the Government will make their arguments with an open mind. I shall try to do likewise.
First, on local issues, should a high-speed rail route run through Buckinghamshire, specifically the Chilterns AONB? The Chilterns AONB is a rare, precious landscape benefiting not just those who live there but the millions who visit every year from across the country, particularly, due to its proximity, from London. I have lived adjacent to the AONB for almost three years and can confirm that it is one of Britain’s most beautiful and ecologically rich landscapes.
The preferred route of HS 2 crosses the AONB at its widest point, in contradiction to the policy followed for HS 1. In Kent, the route of HS 1 was amended to avoid the North Downs AONB. By contrast, HS 2 appears to have been deliberately routed through the least spoilt, widest part of the Chilterns.
My hon. Friend mentioned High Speed 1. HS 1 was introduced in Gillingham and Rainham, in Kent, about a year ago and there are lessons to be learnt from that. Does he agree that a new fast service should not be introduced at the expense of the existing train lines? The number of services from Gillingham to Victoria and Cannon Street stations was cut. Lessons have to be learnt. The routes, services and timetable cannot be changed at the expense of HS 1. Another lesson has to be learnt in terms of cost and affordability: HS 1 fares in Kent have increased by 30%.
I agree. I shall return to the economics of HS 1 later.
Some 59 different protected species have been recorded within 1 km of the route of HS 2. The recommended route involves tunnelling directly through an aquifer, risking reducing the water table and exacerbating low flow in the Chess and Misbourne. It also risks possible contamination of the ground water. The environmental impact of the recommended route of HS 2 would be enormous. I am therefore calling for an official environmental impact assessment of the preferred route well in advance of the planned consultation, so that interested parties can fully digest its findings. In Kent, the route was altered to run beside the existing M20, a major strategic transport corridor, which reduced incremental noise pollution and landscape damage. I am surprised that a similar approach has not been adopted for HS 2. The M40 in my constituency is infamous for its proximity to housing and for its meandering path.
Opposition to high-speed rail is substantial in Buckinghamshire. On 7 November, an HS 2 rally took place in Great Missenden, where more than 2,000 people demonstrated their opposition. At the rally, the noise that HS 2 will make was played to the audience. Many were shocked by what they heard. The noise over the speakers may or may not accurately represent what HS 2 will sound like, but it reinforces the need for HS2 Ltd or the Department for Transport to provide noise maps and proper analysis of the noise impact that people will face. HS2 Ltd said, in a letter dated 8 October about noise assessment studies:
“On the subject of noise assessments, an Appraisal of Sustainability is currently being finalised and will be published ready for the launch of the consultation in the new year”.
We are impatient. It is now well over a month since then, but there is no sign of any further information. It is unacceptable for HS2 Ltd to keep delaying this important study.
Part of the planned preferred route slices through a corner of my neighbouring constituency at Denham in Buckinghamshire. The route enters the constituency through a site of special scientific interest in the Colne valley. There is no doubt that the railway line, which at that point would be on some type of viaduct, will have a seriously adverse impact on the environment. For example, the railway would culvert the River Colne along a several hundred yard stretch in an area where there has been a long struggle to maintain the rural aspect of a river valley that has significant environmental importance. With all this in mind, will the Minister please ensure publication of the environmental impact assessment at the earliest possible moment?
There is no benefit to Buckinghamshire from accepting high-speed rail. The project would have to be bullied through against the well-grounded wishes of those affected, causing not just the environmental damage described but also infringing the property rights of large numbers of people. Doing so would thoroughly undermine the Government’s commitment to increasing people’s power over their own lives. From Buckinghamshire’s perspective, the answer to whether HS 2 should run across the county is, of course, a resounding no. Buckinghamshire people are bound to object to a programme that would merely blight our beautiful county and trespass on local people’s businesses and the quiet enjoyment of their homes. I find myself asking, “Should any area of the country be forced to accept high-speed rail?”
Having had the privilege of living in many areas of the country throughout my adult life, it is my view that Buckinghamshire’s arguments would find parallels in most parts of the country, particularly those with designated areas of outstanding natural beauty. Why should anyone tolerate the demolition of their home or business? Why should anyone accept the ruination of a swathe of countryside? Why should anyone agree to so much noise and disruption? The answer, of course, lies in the national interest.
To justify so grotesque an intrusion into property rights and local collective enjoyment of the natural environment, the Government must be certain that the benefits of HS 2 to the whole nation would far outweigh the high costs that would be imposed along the route. Clearly, if a high-speed rail network will usher in a new age of incomparable prosperity for the whole country, regenerating the industrial north and reuniting it with the south, we must all support it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He makes a strong case, as one would expect from a constituency MP working on behalf of his constituents. Does he accept that there may be some benefits for his constituents? The alternative to high-speed rail is that people do not travel or—more likely—that journeys are made by air or by road. That has an impact on the environment in the form of air pollution, for example, and noise nuisance, which might also affect his constituents.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention and I will return to some of those points, in particular how we make a judgment between road, rail and air travel.
If it is not true that high-speed rail is in the national interest, and if such a project will offer only marginal and uncertain benefits at vast expense, it would be in no one’s interest. I am delighted that the Government wish to ensure the prosperity of the whole nation, but it has not been demonstrated that HS 2 will deliver that. To justify such a grievous impact on the people and landscape of Buckinghamshire—and indeed along the entire length of the route, wherever it is located—the Government must place the economic and environmental case for the programme beyond all doubt. I do not believe they have yet done so.
High-speed rail is not commercially viable, so the expense is justified with a wider cost-benefit analysis. That analysis relies on assumptions, including excessive demand, generous benefits and a flawed analysis of the alternatives. I shall only touch on each point today, but I am sure that campaigners will furnish us with full details during the course of the inquiry.
The projected increase in demand is open to challenges that include demand saturation, a broken relationship with GDP, out-of-date data, neglect of new technology, and inadequate anticipation of competition from classic rail—a problem that blighted HS 1. The case for benefits neglects the fact that many of us work on the train, and it depends on implausible levels of crowding. The Department for Transport’s alternative, Rail Package 2, is paid too little attention, despite meeting demand with less crowding than would occur should the HS 2 programme go ahead. At £2 billion, the package is much less expensive. It is better value for money and capable of incremental delivery, setting it free from the risks associated with long-range economic forecasting. Rail companies could lengthen trains to nine, 10 or 11 cars. That would increase capacity from 294 to 444 seats—an increase of 51%. Unused first-class capacity could also be swapped for standard seats, thereby further increasing total capacity.
It is a myth that the UK lacks a fast national railway network; we have had one for a long time. We have routes capable of 125 mph, with quicker rail journey times between the capital and the five largest cities than in other major western European countries. For instance, the average journey time in the UK is 145 minutes. It is 151 minutes in Spain, 184 in Italy, 221 in France and 244 in Germany. In short, it appears that for £2 billion, the Government could have a complete, low-risk but unglamorous solution to the problem of rail capacity, and rather sooner than HS 2 could be delivered. Therefore, I am not convinced that £30 billion—or more—of taxpayers’ money would be wisely risked on HS 2.
Does my hon. Friend accept that every infrastructure investment and transport initiative imaginable could, in the short term, be done more cost-effectively with the sort of incremental approach he has just mentioned? That does not take away the need to think strategically, and occasionally to do things that are more than just incremental.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that we should explore at some length. In the final part of my speech I shall set out why I think we have been taking the wrong approach to infrastructure in this country.
Targeted investment in existing infrastructure would ultimately offer greater benefits to the whole country not served by HS 2, including the south-west, south Wales, East Anglia and the north-east. Such an approach would provide a visible demonstration of productive investment during a time of austerity. I am aware that the environmental case for HS 2 can be similarly attacked, but given the time, I shall simply quote Mr Steve Rodrick, chief officer of the Chilterns Conservation Board:
“The case for HS 2 is largely built on capturing the internal aviation market, but 80% of all journeys between Manchester and London already involve the train…These trains will use double, possibly triple, the energy of normal trains. Where’s that energy going to come from? You either have to bank on nuclear coming on stream or, more likely, power stations running on fossil fuels, which will involve significant carbon emissions.”
I also recommend Christian Wolmar’s 15 September article for RAIL magazine, which states that the arguments against HS 2 are mounting. His tour de force concludes by explaining that HS 2 would absorb money that would otherwise be spent on classic rail in an environment of reduced funding. He writes:
“We cannot have it all. Let’s work to protect what is essential, rather than trying to reach for the moon.”
Finally, I will turn to rail policy and transport strategy in the round. If transport resources and the necessary land and capital are scarce, what is the best approach to ensure optimal resource allocation? It has long been argued by the Conservative party, as it was once argued by Liberals, that unhampered social co-operation in the free market is the most efficient and effective way to allocate resources and relieve scarcity. With that in mind, I asked the House of Commons Library to prepare a summary entitled “Price controls and state intervention in the rail market.” It is not, of course, a simple statement that there are no price controls or state interventions in the rail market; it is six pages long and covers passenger franchise specification, the control of fares and rolling stock procurement. It also sketches the process of almost continuous organisational change that has dogged rail since nationalisation in 1948. Contemporary rail is not characterised by property rights, freedom to contract, open competition and unhampered prices.
My task today is not that of setting out a new free market transport strategy, and I will not pretend I am able to do so. However, I wish to emphasise that rail, and road transport in particular, are not capitalist systems in the conventional sense but hybrid systems of heavily regulated and subsidised public and private companies. We have inherited a rail system whose franchise agreements descend into such detail as specifying a “biennial talent management programme” and even “time with your manager sessions.” That is not freedom to contract, and clearly rail operators are not free to set market fares.
Of course, I do not want fares to rise any more than my colleagues do, but we should admit that the rail system does not operate in a free market and that therefore economic calculation is likely to be hampered, if not irrational. We simply cannot know whether today’s rail economics are optimal, but it seems likely that they are not.
The hon. Gentleman is making the point that the current rail network is not a truly free-market, capitalist system, but will he not accept that there is a role for the state to play in markets where there is market failure—for example, where there has to be a national network—as has been well documented by many economists? Will he also confirm that he stood on a manifesto platform at the election that promised to
“begin work immediately to create a high speed rail line connecting London and Heathrow with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds”
as the “first step” towards achieving a vision of a
“national high speed rail network to join up major cities across England, Scotland and Wales”?
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to deal with that point, in which I see she takes some pleasure. In the first place, I note that economists take a range of views on these matters, and mine are perhaps rather more free market than most. On the second point, about the manifesto, Conservative candidates across Buckinghamshire stood for election saying they would oppose HS 2 and knowing that that was in contradiction to the manifesto. I personally made it clear at the time that I would oppose HS 2.
If it is true that economic calculation is likely to be hampered, if not irrational, under the present system—I am certain that it is—we should not be surprised that there is so much disagreement about economics in respect of rail. We should not be surprised when the Institute of Economic Affairs estimates that the return on HS 1 is less than half of 1% of the Government’s investment per year. Nor should we be astounded that some markets for high-speed rail already show signs of saturation. For example, demand on the lines from Tokyo to Osaka and Brussels to Paris is not growing anywhere near as fast as forecast. According to the Financial Times, China is reviewing its high-speed rail plans for affordability and practicality. Its latest high-speed line is operating at less than half capacity, and it is projected that the lines will never make enough money to repay the large loans used to build them.
I shall leave the last word on the economics of high-speed rail to the IEA’s Dr Richard Wellings, who wrote in relation to High Speed 1:
“Perhaps an unsubsidised international service could just about cover maintenance costs, with the sunk capital effectively written off. But far better returns could almost certainly be achieved by shutting down the line and disposing of the assets—which include substantial plots of land, tunnels under London and the Thames, and large amounts of scrap metal.”
HS 2 should certainly not be driven through Buckinghamshire, where it would have an egregious effect on some of our finest countryside, but it is not clear at all that HS 2 should be driven through any part of our country. HS 2 appears economically irrational: it requires tens of billions of pounds to increase the UK’s transport capacity by about 1%. Less money could be better spent. Moreover, that economic irrationality is almost certainly attributable to the prevailing orthodoxy in rail policy. It is an orthodoxy of planning, not the free market. We are at the end of a wasteful century of socialisation. Today, the basis of transport and, more broadly, infrastructure economics presupposes planning. It should therefore be no surprise that transport is characterised by scarcity, excessive prices and political tension.
To return to where I began, I applaud sincerely the Government’s noble intent, but I note that rail has not been governed by the free market for a very long time. There is no doubt that this country needs good-quality infrastructure. We should create the conditions in which unsubsidised enterprise can deliver the optimal solution. That would be the classical Liberal and Conservative approach. In my view, the solution that would emerge is not likely to be high-speed rail. I believe that this programme should be cancelled.
Order. A number of hon. Members wish to speak, and obviously time is limited. I hope to start the winding-up speeches by 10.40 am, so I urge all hon. Members to be reasonably brief in their speeches. I call Frank Dobson.
When I first looked at the plans for High Speed 2, I was principally concerned with its immediate impact on my constituency where it comes into Euston station. Its effect there would be the demolition of 350 flats, about two thirds of a small park, St James’s gardens, being concreted over, a massive inhibition on the much-needed rebuilding of Maria Fidelis Catholic girls secondary school, and problems for people in the Primrose Hill area, whose homes would be tunnelled under in a big way. However, the more I looked at the proposal, the more I thought that it was not just a matter of the damage that it was likely to do in my constituency, but that the whole project of bringing the line into Euston station and other aspects of the proposal were daft and expensive.
In saying that the London terminal should be Euston station, the projectors had to come up with ways of coping with the fact that Euston station is not on the Heathrow Express line and is not intended to be on the Crossrail route, so it does not have major connections that would be important for High Speed 2. To cope with that, the projectors proposed building a sort of super-parkway station at Old Oak Common—more commonly known as Wormwood Scrubs—and then rebuilding Euston as well. Bringing the line into Euston would also involve the boring of a 5½ mile tunnel, which as we all know is a fairly expensive item.
If the projectors had instead proposed that the line came into Paddington station, that would have made sense, because Paddington is already the terminus for the Heathrow Express and will be on the Crossrail route. The idea of coming into Euston seems to spring entirely from the fact that trains from Birmingham have always come into Euston. There is no more justification for it than that.
When I looked at the plan more widely, it seemed to me that there were other major shortcomings with it. High Speed 1 has been a great success, and certainly the refurbishment of St Pancras station in my constituency—I think that I was the first person to suggest that St Pancras should be the High Speed 1 terminal—has been a great success. The idea that we shall have just one leg of a high-speed system coming into London but not connected to High Speed 1 seems simply stupid. If we are to have a high-speed rail system that is on the end of the high-speed system in the rest of Europe, it would not be a bad idea if it was connected to it, which is not the present proposition.
Similarly, if only one leg of the system from the north will come into London, that will mean that the system is vulnerable to a major crash or terrorist activity that would close down the whole system. I make no comment on where the line should run outside London, but it seems to me that rather than a Y-shape arrangement, there ought to be an H-shape arrangement, so that coming into London are two legs, at least one of which is directly connected to High Speed 1 and would allow trains to come from the east side of Scotland, and the north-east and Yorkshire, and, if they wanted to, come into Paddington. Other trains from, say, Glasgow or Manchester would be able to cross over and come into wherever the link to High Speed 1 was located.
The scheme is badly thought out and extremely expensive. It will be amazingly damaging for my constituency. It should be withdrawn and criteria should be established that set out what on earth it is supposed to achieve. We should then come up with proposals that go some way towards achieving that.
I will move on to the scheme’s affordability. I have, in theory, a degree in economics. I am convinced that economic forecasts for more than 18 months nearly always turn out to be total rubbish. I therefore do not give much weight to anybody’s economic forecasts or assessments of viability for or against the scheme. History shows that all the major railway engineering projects of the 19th century went bust, were involved deeply in fraud or, more commonly, both. I do not think that a major railway project has ever paid back the original investors, unless they have benefited from fraud, such as the huge Ponzi scheme of the line to the north-east. I think we must accept that such projects never will repay their investors and that there is no free-market solution. Apparently, the Institute of Economic Affairs wants to rip up High Speed 1.
On coming to this place, I did not think that I would find myself much in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, but I am delighted to hear him speak against rail. Would it not have been good if the market had stopped the rail programmes that he has mentioned because insufficient people freely chose them to make them profitable? Money would then not have been wasted on such infrastructure.
I have never heard anybody suggest that the 19th-century railway boom in every industrialised country in the world did not contribute substantially to the economic development of those countries. Perhaps some people at the Institute of Economic Affairs are so stupid and reactionary that they believe that, but that is by the bye.
The impact of the scheme on my constituency will be dreadful and I reject it on a parochial basis. I also believe that it is ill thought out and will not achieve most of the things that are sought by people who are in favour of a high-speed system in this country.
Like the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), I will focus on the narrow impact of high-speed rail on my constituency. I will make the point that development might not always be good. Rugby sits on the west coast main line, which has recently received substantial investment to focus on the city-to-city times for London to Birmingham, London to Manchester and London to Glasgow. A side effect has been a reduction in the service for towns such as Rugby. The service to the north-west is much less frequent because the city-to-city times have been improved by the trains not stopping at intermediate stations. The Rugby rail users group is campaigning for the reinstatement of those services and sees the development of high-speed rail as an opportunity to recover them, because city-to-city traffic might move from the west coast main line to HS 2.
The effects of HS 2 might not be entirely beneficial. I will give anecdotal evidence from France. For many years, I travelled to visit friends in Épernay, which is the home of Champagne. Épernay is about the same distance from Paris as Rugby is from London. In the ’70s and ’80s, I enjoyed a regular service to Épernay from the main east line out of Paris towards Strasbourg. When one turned up at the Gare de l’Est, there were plenty of trains. On making the same journey last summer, I found that there were no trains throughout the day. There was one commuter train from Épernay to Paris in the morning and one from Paris to Épernay in the evening. The reason was that the new TGV line through eastern France heads towards the bigger city of Reims, taking all of the traffic from the existing railway line. My concern is that towns such as Rugby may suffer from the introduction of a new high-speed rail line and receive a worse service.
The rail service is critical to the economic development of Rugby. That is recognised by the chamber of commerce. At a recent event, 50 businesses heard the case for high-speed rail and I understand that many left the presentation unconvinced and unsatisfied as to its merits. There needs to be a good understanding of business so that the project delivers benefits for it.
I will conclude because many hon. Members want to contribute, but I make it clear that the existing rail network will be affected by HS 2, and it is important that there is an assessment of the impact on the communities that will be affected.
I will describe the context as I see it for such infrastructure improvements. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) spoke of economic forecasts. I start with the economic figure that the average gross value added per head in London is about £30,000, whereas in the English regions, it is about £17,000. Such a huge difference does not exist in any other country in Europe. One way in which that can be fixed is through infrastructure investment. Even now, there is massively more infrastructure investment in London, with 60% more infrastructure capital spend per head in London than in the regions. The high-speed rail project is fundamental to the regeneration of large parts of the north of England and the midlands.
We have discussed the business case so I will not spend much time on it, although we could argue more about it. The Department for Transport will have to publish the business case. The net benefit ratio in the preliminary publications was 2.7, which is pretty high. However, that figure includes assumptions about factors such as idle time and optimistic passenger projections—I think that the figure was 278%. That must all be worked through. The business case does not include anything about the economic regeneration of the north, the carbon savings from the modal shift from road and air to rail, or the freeing-up of airport capacity. It is not possible not to go ahead with the third runway without a project of this kind.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the project will benefit Yorkshire and the north-east, as it will the north-west. Does he agree that when the Y-shaped line is built—as I hope it will be—both legs should be built at the same time to ensure that the benefits that he rightly identifies are brought to the north-west and the north-east simultaneously so that one region does not suffer at the expense of the other?
I agree that the Y-shaped solution is the most sensible one, but I do not want to get into which part should be built first. I would like to quote a few numbers on the transformational impact of the potential scheme. We are generating, potentially, many tens of thousands of jobs. In January 2010 KPMG published a report which estimated an incremental increase in employment of between 29,000 and 42,000—not directly from constructing or operating the line but due to the economic and productivity impact on the regions of much closer links with London. In itself, 40,000 jobs would generate a huge bonus for the Exchequer, but none of that is currently in the business case that is being debated.
A lot—in fact, nearly all—of the comments up till now have been on the environmental issues surrounding the line. I do not want to minimise their impact, but the Government are the Government of the whole country, not just of the south-east of England and London. It is important that we properly weigh up some of the unpleasant environmental impacts against the greater good.
I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he accept that building high-speed rail with a Y shape going as far as the north-west will bring benefits to other parts of the country, including Scotland? Extending high-speed rail to Scotland would cut the journey time from four and a half hours to more like two hours. Even as it is being built, it will start to decrease the journey times because people will be able to change trains part way through, if they wish.
I certainly agree that, in time, the line needs to go to Scotland. I have very much bought in to the productivity improvements and the step change in how we do business in the country that could be achieved with such a line—so, yes, I agree.
Going back to the environmental impact, it is obviously right that compensation is paid and that we do the right thing by the people whose property rights are being impacted. However, that cannot be our pre-eminent concern.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the environmental impact is about more than landscape? I think he was making that point. Environment is about people, communities, jobs and productivity as much as it is about the landscape that we might enjoy through the window of a train or, indeed, of a car.
I accept that. Indeed, where we have areas of high unemployment, the ability of people who live there to enjoy their environment is much less than it would be otherwise. The Government also have a duty to take into account the impact on prosperity and employment throughout the country.
I want to make a couple of slightly more detailed points. It is important that whatever we build is linked to Heathrow. Those are probably the Government’s plans, but it seems to be absolute nonsense to build a high-speed rail link to the north and not to link properly Manchester airport and Heathrow, so as to see some of the traffic from Heathrow move.
I am of the view that the line needs to go to Euston and should not stop and link to Crossrail. I am not an expert, but Euston seems to be close to the business centres of London, so the impact of achieving that would be substantial.
I would like to see a spur to Warrington and Preston as soon as possibly, but I realise that the Minister might not think that that is her highest priority.
With reference to an earlier point, not linking High Speed 2 with High Speed 1 would be absurd. In my understanding of the initial business case for High Speed 1, the reason why we went into St Pancras in the first place was to allow that line, eventually, to go north. We are now building a High Speed 2 line to the north, so it ought to be linked.
Finally, it is very important that the Government maintain their commitment to the plan and realise that they are the Government for the entire country, and the entire country needs this.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I have finished now, so I will not give way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate.
I take a strong interest in the issue at two levels: strategically, as a member of the Select Committee on Transport and because High Speed 2 is a key component in the debate on our national transport infrastructure; and locally. Although the proposed route does not go through my constituency in Milton Keynes, it runs close by, just a couple of miles from my western border, which is close enough for me to have a say in the debate in a local context and to understand the justifiable concerns of many villagers along the proposed route.
I will put my cards on the table right at the start. From all the evidence that I have seen, there is a strong case for an additional north-south strategic rail route in the United Kingdom and for that route to be capable of running the latest generation of high-speed trains. However, I am far from convinced that the detail of the proposed route is correct.
We run the risk of an enormous and costly error in this country if we do not get the details right, which is why I warmly welcome the recent assurance by the Secretary of State and the Minister that the inquiry into High Speed 2 will examine both the strategic case and the specifics of the proposed route. Frankly, we get one shot at making the project work and, vitally, if it is to succeed, it must be done on the strongest evidence and commanding broad-based support in the country.
One strategic argument is that, instead of ploughing billions of pounds into constructing a High Speed 2 line, the money—smaller amounts even—could be better used upgrading what are known as the classic rail routes. I regard that as a false choice.
As any regular user of the west coast main line knows, it is already getting pretty close to capacity, even after the substantial investment and upgrades in recent years. If anyone doubts that, I invite them to go to Euston station at 7 o’clock on a weekday evening and try to board the Manchester train. Virgin has to employ people who are basically crowd-control managers to prevent ugly scenes. The line has other pinch points as well.
Does my hon. Friend agree that ugly scenes as a result of scarce resources are typical of socialism?
My hon. Friend tempts me down an interesting line of debate but, in the interests of brevity, I will resist that temptation.
At the moment, the classic network has pinch points. Yes, certain upgrades could be made—trains could be lengthened by a couple of coaches, there is room for one additional train movement in and out of Euston at peak times and the speed on the line could be increased a little. All those things can be done, but they would only buy time.
The choice, however, is not between doing those things and investing in High Speed 2. If we look at the time frame for High Speed 2, there is a gap between the existing capacity and what is needed in current years. I believe we have to do both—upgrade the classic rail routes and plan for the long term with High Speed 2. Simply, the forecast increase in the UK population and our increased willingness and desire to travel more and in comfort, mean that the extra capacity is required.
I accept the general case that there should be a route from London to Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and cities in the north of England and in Scotland. However, it is important that the business case is rigorously tested. From a common-sense layman’s perspective, we need to challenge why certain aspects of the current HS 2 case seem to be omitted or rejected. Time constraints prohibit me from going into those in detail, but let me flag up one or two of the issues, which other Members have raised.
Why does High Speed 2 not connect with HS1? It is crazy not to connect them, in my view. I had a meeting with the chief executive of Crossrail recently, and I asked him, “Has anyone considered using Crossrail as a link between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2?” He said, “You’re the first person who’s ever proposed that to me.” Such a link may not be the answer, but it is surely the sort of issue that we should look at as we consider a multi billion pound scheme over many years. Has High Speed 2 been considered in the context of broader UK aviation policy? Should we not look at connecting Birmingham airport, Heathrow and other airports in the midlands and the south as part of our total transport policy?
Why are we not looking more at intermediate stops along the line? I have enormous sympathy for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, who said that Buckinghamshire would have all the pain but none of the gain because there would be no access point along the route. The French TGV system has intermediate stops at different points. This summer, I travelled on the line down to the Mediterranean, and there is a stop at Valence. It is constructed in such a way that it does not impede the fast trains that shoot through, but it gives access to many towns and cities in that part of France. If I may, I would like to put in an early bid for an Iain Stewart international gateway station to serve Milton Keynes and the surrounding areas.
There are justifiable environmental concerns, but I urge those who are concerned about the environmental impacts to look closely at other high-speed lines around the world. The use of proper cuttings and natural cuttings can minimise a lot of the noise and visual damage.
I want now to make a more strategic point. Everyone who objects to rail schemes believes that they will be ugly and unsightly, but they need not be. This country has a proud tradition of building infrastructure projects—particularly rail infrastructure projects—that enhance the environment. The Forth bridge, the Ribblehead viaduct and Brunel’s bridges and tunnels are things of beauty, and, done properly, the projects that we are talking about could actually enhance the countryside. I do not want to create some ghastly, ugly concrete jungle, but for goodness’ sake, if we are going to make High Speed 2 a national project, let us use it to showcase what we can do. I have mentioned examples of older infrastructure projects, but we could look at modern ones, such as the Millau viaduct in France, which enhances the environment.
It is absolutely right that we consider the strategic case to make sure that the numbers stack up. Equally, everyone along the route must have their say as to why the line should or should not go through a particular locale. However, let us do things with a positive attitude. We need High Speed 2 in this country and we get one shot at it. When we have the inquiry, which I strongly welcome, let us undertake it with a positive attitude.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. He has put a strong case on behalf of his constituents, and it was also interesting, given his ideology of free market deregulation.
I want to make a couple of points before asking a few questions. The coalition agreement was absolutely right to commit to high-speed rail, which is a potentially incredibly important and transformational project. However, there is no either/or choice between high-speed rail and the conventional railway network. The Government have done extraordinarily well to protect almost the totality of the £14 billion of planned investment in the rest of the rail network during the battles over the comprehensive spending review. With the possible exception of my beloved redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line, no rail project has been abandoned as a result of the CSR or the commitment to high-speed rail. The hon. Gentleman should be reassured by that.
The bigger picture is the UK’s ability to meet its long-term carbon emission targets, but we need more robust data. Some quite high numbers are being talked about, and we have heard about 23 million tonnes of carbon being saved over 60 years. However, there is a question mark over some of the numbers, given that about 77% of the journeys quoted by High Speed 2 Ltd apparently increase carbon emissions, as 50% of passengers shift from less energy-intensive railway journeys to high-speed rail and another 27% make new journeys. Of course, that probably underestimates the impact on the conventional rail network, given that other people might take up the capacity that is freed up there and we might see a parallel modal shift from car journeys to conventional rail journeys.
The figures also underestimate the impact of the long-term plan, which brings me to my first question. What is the Government’s latest thinking on the long-term commitment to connections to Scotland and the north-east? I might even add Wales and the west. There is clear evidence that there will be a profound impact on aviation over those longer distances—they are longer than the initial London to Birmingham stretch. A company called Travelport, which owns two of the four back-office systems that support airline and high-speed rail bookings around the world, has suggested to me that in the first month after the introduction of a high-speed rail link over such a distance, one third of the air travel on the same route vanishes, and that aviation drops by two thirds within three months. If that is true when we eventually have longer high-speed rail links in this country, it will have a profound impact on our carbon emissions.
Does my hon. Friend accept that air traffic north to south is already falling, so we should not expect a massive decline in air travel as a result of building High Speed 2?
I am not sure that that is right. I must confess past sins. I used to work for a marketing agency that had clients in Scotland and I am afraid that I regularly took the team on a flight up to Edinburgh. I am now very guilty about that, and it was probably very carbon-inefficient, but the truth is that high-speed rail could have a massive impact on such business journeys, on recreational travel and on other connections between Scotland and London. All the evidence from other parts of the world is that that impact is quite consistent.
Turning now to my questions, I want to ask first about the status of the Heathrow interchange in the Government’s plans. If one is trying to reduce carbon emissions, it seems illogical to make sure that people can get to airports even more efficiently, so I do not see the Heathrow interchange as particularly important. The fact that it is being retained even as a long-term objective or possibility might militate against the option pointed out by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who spoke of the logic of a connection between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2.
Secondly, I would urge sensitivity to local issues. Caroline Pidgeon on the London assembly has raised the issue of houses in London that might be only a couple of metres above the tunnel when it is eventually built. Even though those houses are built on London clay and often do not have deep foundations, the householders do not appear to have access to the hardship fund. I would welcome the Minister’s latest thoughts on that.
Finally, there is the issue of planning. I have long been an advocate of a democratic planning system. I have made the case for such a system to people who propose nuclear power stations and, for consistency, even to my friends in the wind energy industry. However, it is a bit more difficult to take a site-by-site approach with a long railway route; we cannot just take out Berkshire and expect there to be no impact on the rest of the network.
In that respect, I commend to hon. Members and Ministers the words of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has taken an enlightened approach to this issue. It points out that High Speed 1 runs through the Kent downs area of outstanding natural beauty, adding:
“Noise from trains is barely noticeable compared to the background noise of traffic, while earth mounds and wooden barriers help conceal the line itself…No stations are proposed for HS2 between London and Birmingham, so like the Central Railway proposal it would not offer local benefits. HS2’s trains are likely to whoosh past in seconds unlike noisy diesel freight trains proposed to trundle along the Central Railway, so the noise impacts should be less but this still would mean ‘something for nothing’ for the communities it would pass through.”
The “something for nothing” argument is important. The CPRE suggests that a number of benefits could be built into the long-term scheme. It says that “Electricity pylons” could
“run along much of the route including in the Chilterns AONB and these could be undergrounded next to the track…Low noise surfaces could be installed on local roads to improve tranquillity…New and improved Rights of Way and Open Access Land could improve outdoor opportunities around the path of the route”.
It makes many other suggestions for improvements that would benefit people along the route as this important project is put in place. There may be environmental consequences—there is no escaping that—but the bigger picture is important. As I said at the beginning, this could be a transformational project, very important for our long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions, and one I strongly support from the Liberal Democrat benches.
As we do not have much time, I will be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate on a topic that is causing a great deal of concern up and down the route. We need to ensure that it causes more concern in the rest of the country, where people do not have the route coming through their back gardens and therefore do not realise how devastating it is going to be to communities and families.
The route will have a potentially devastating impact on my constituency of North Warwickshire. We face the prospect that the line as it runs in to Birmingham from the main line will branch off in my constituency, causing a huge amount of devastation to the villages of Gilson and Water Orton. The main line will continue further north, causing severe impact on the town of Coleshill and the village of Middleton. Potentially even more worrying, if the Y-shaped route happens, we might end up with the junction in my constituency, probably tripling the amount of blight and devastation in North Warwickshire. We do not know exactly where the Y-shaped junction is going to be, but there is a great deal of concern throughout my constituency. If the Y-shaped junction does end up in my constituency, it will probably be the single most affected in the country as a result of the route.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that we need to know as quickly as possible where the Y-shaped route is going to diverge, so that residents in our part of the world—I represent Tamworth, just up the road from North Warwickshire—can begin to make dispositions as they see fit?
I entirely agree and thank my hon. Friend. He and I have neighbouring constituencies and we are working closely together on this. We are watching closely, because if the Y-shaped junction is not in my constituency, it is likely to be in or close to his. People need to know about this issue. Knowing one is going to be devastated by something is one thing; believing one might be but not knowing is even worse. There are people on a route that appeared briefly on one map—with a dotted line that disappeared from subsequent maps—who were effectively blighted, but who were unable to take part in the exceptional hardship scheme or any other compensation scheme. They are blighted through uncertainty, not through an actual line on a map. It is important that that topic be addressed as quickly as possible.
However, I am going to be brief so that someone else can say a few words. I want to make two pleas to the Minister. The first concerns the exceptional hardship scheme. I ask her to look in detail at what has happened so far—at those who have been approved and those who have not—and satisfy herself that the current scheme is transparent and working properly. I have had constituents refused under the scheme, and who were given reasons that were not listed as factors on any previous document or in the frequently asked questions relating to the scheme. That suggests that the scheme is not transparent and that to a large degree, the panel is making it up as it goes along. It is fundamentally wrong for people, having looked at the published documentation and believed that they ticked all the boxes, to then be turned down on criteria they did not even know were to be considered.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a rule-of-law point, as classically understood? People should know well in advance what the rules are—fixed, well-known rules that affect their property.
I entirely agree that it is a rule-of-law issue, and it is also a moral point. People understand that Governments need to make difficult decisions such as this, but they have to make them within a framework that is open, transparent and understandable. If it looks as though decisions are being made in a murky way, that completely undermines what the Government are trying to do. By definition, people applying under the exceptional hardship scheme are going through a difficult time. I urge the Minister to look at how it is working and to point out to the panel that it is not there to be a hard-nosed gatekeeper, but to implement a clear and transparent process in a neutral and even-handed way.
Of course, there are many people who qualify for the exceptional hardship scheme but whose homes are blighted by the prospect of the railway, and by its actualité if it is built. Does he not think that the cost of that extra blight—which means that homes cannot be sold, so stamp duty is forgone by the Treasury, as is the spending power of the people who cannot sell their homes or who sell at a lower price—should be factored in to the business case?
I entirely agree. Getting the compensation right is every bit as important as getting the details of the route right. In many ways, it would be far cheaper. The sort of figures we are talking about for compensating people are dwarfed by the sums involved in building the railway scheme. I urge the Minister, do not be cheap when it comes to compensation. If we have to do this and blight people’s lives, compensate them adequately. That is really important.
My final plea to the Minister is, will she please bash some heads together at HS 2 Ltd and tell it to stop refusing requests from local councils to come and brief officers and members? The chief executive of the council in my constituency, North Warwickshire borough council, has just written an uncharacteristically strongly worded letter to HS 2 Ltd expressing his deep disappointment that before the general election, it had agreed to come and brief officers and members, but said running into the election that it was then in purdah and could not do it. It is now a long time since the general election and it is still refusing to brief the council. Local borough and county councils need to understand what is happening in their areas. They do not and they are not getting the help they need from HS 2 Ltd. It might be a little over-dominated by engineers; it needs some people who can explain, communicate and listen.
Those are my two pleas to the Minister. Will she please look at the exceptional hardship scheme and compensation, and satisfy herself on those matters, because I do not think the system is working fairly? Secondly, please tell HS 2 Ltd to engage more, particularly with local borough and county councils.
I call Craig Whittaker, but remind him that I wish to start the wind-ups by 10.40 am.
Thank you, Mr Weir. As people know, I represent the wonderful and beautiful constituency of the Calder Valley in west Yorkshire. Many would say, of course, that it rivals, or even exceeds, the beauty of Buckinghamshire. We live in an area that is rich in a history of industry, and more recently banking and financial services, as well as still being a major employer in manufacturing and distribution, with over 26% of our employees working in manufacturing. Imagine what economic benefits High Speed 2 would bring to those employees and manufacturers. Many of the 6,000 employees at the headquarters of Lloyds TSB and Halifax live in the Calder Valley, making our economy one of the most at-risk areas in Britain if we see a further slide in the banking and financial services industry.
I recently went to Paris on Eurostar from London. As we know, that line is Britain’s first high-speed rail link. It is incredibly useful to the economy of the south-east of England but not to Yorkshire’s, given that people can get a train and arrive at two different foreign capitals to do business more quickly than they can get a train in London and arrive in my constituency to do business. Pundits have spoken about the north-south divide in this country for many years. May I suggest that High Speed 1 to Paris has created not only a greater north-south divide, but also pushed the divide even further south? High Speed 2 would shorten that divide for Yorkshire.
The Calder Valley has a huge diversity of business.
I apologise for missing the earlier part of the debate; I was at another meeting. High Speed 2 will indeed provide benefits to Yorkshire. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those benefits will also extend in due course further north—for example, to Edinburgh where my constituency is located, and to other places in the north of England and Scotland?
Without question, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, let us get the first leg of the line into Yorkshire first.
As I said, the Calder Valley has a huge diversity of businesses—ranging from sole traders all the way up to some fantastic, world-leading businesses at the cutting edge—that contribute a gross value added average of £3.3 billion to our country. Our employees have the highest productivity rates in west Yorkshire and are among the highest in Britain, at £43,700 GVA per employee. Why should we not have access to our capital and other major cities at speeds equivalent to, or even better than, those available to the French or the Belgians?
We in Yorkshire do not advocate reducing access to our cities by foreign business with High Speed 1; we merely ask for a level playing field so that we can compete and play our part in our country’s economic growth. High Speed 2 will give Yorkshire just that—a level playing field, so that we can grow and continue to be the beating heart of England well into the next century. It is a place that we have earned, and deserve to have.
I thank the Government for consulting on the Y-shaped model for HS 2. I give the Minister the guarantee that we Yorkshire MPs will do all we can to ensure that it happens.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Weir. I am pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. I was glad to have the opportunity to listen to the views, opinions and concerns of right hon. and hon. Members.
The Labour Government brought forward the original idea for High Speed 2, and I welcome the fact that the coalition Government will continue with that project through the next stages. However, I note from reports in The Daily Telegraph over the weekend that high-speed rail is causing the Conservative part of the coalition some local difficulty, with at least three Ministers being publically opposed—including, if reports are correct, a Cabinet Minister. Indeed, the paper quoted the Secretary of State for Wales as saying:
“I would defy the party whip—be very, very sure of that.”
We will have to see whether Cabinet Ministers are willing to vote against the Government on this issue. None the less, the Minister who is here today obviously enjoys the support of the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who made a valid case for the economy of the north-west of England—as a north-west MP, I certainly agree with much of what he said—and she has the in-principle support of the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker).
A project of this size and scale will, of course, not be without controversy. Without doubt, good travel links between Britain’s major cities are central to our economy. We need a transport system that is high-capacity, efficient and sustainable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in developing the eastern part of the Y, it is important that core cities such as Nottingham are included, so that they too can reap the benefits not only of faster routes to London but of better connectivity to Yorkshire and Birmingham?
When we go into the details of what is proposed, we certainly need to ensure that connectivity with the English regions—the hon. Lady makes a powerful case for the city of Nottingham—are included.
As the economy grows, people will travel for employment and leisure, and there will be more demand to move freight, something that is not sufficiently considered in relation to rail. The Labour Government rightly believed that improved transport capacity would be needed between our major cities from the 2020s, starting with the route from London to the west midlands, two of Britain’s largest conurbations. Projections show that by then the west coast main line will be at capacity. By 2033, the average long-distance west coast main line train is projected to be 80% full, and severe overcrowding will be routine for much of the time. There will also be a significant increase in traffic and congestion on the motorways between and around London, Birmingham and Manchester, far beyond the problems experienced at these locations today.
The Labour Government’s view was that high-speed rail would be one way to provide more capacity between the UK’s main conurbations in the long term. The extra boost provided by a high-speed line would substantially increase existing rail capacity. That would happen not only as a result of the new track but because the track and stations would make possible a far greater length of train, and because high-speed trains would be segregated from other passenger and freight services.
It is worth bearing it in mind that upgrading existing rail lines would yield much less capacity than a high-speed line and at greater cost in both money and disruption, but without most of the journey time savings. That is something that we saw with the recent £9 billion upgrade of the west coast main line; although the benefits were considerable, they were essentially incremental, coming after years of chronic disruption to passengers and businesses.
Journey time savings from high-speed rail will be significant. The journey time from London to the west midlands would be reduced to between 30 and 50 minutes, depending on the stations used. Manchester could be brought within approximately an hour of London, down from almost 2 hours and 10 minutes. Through-services from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London would be down to just three and a half hours.
The connectivity gains of high-speed rail will come not only from faster trains but from the new route alignments that comprise the proposed Y-shaped network of lines from London to Birmingham, and eventually north to Manchester and Leeds.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Labour party’s ultimate objective is that the high-speed line should go directly to Scotland, and that we should not rely on existing services for part of the line? Obviously, things cannot be done at the same time everywhere in the UK, but will he confirm that that is Labour’s objective?
When Labour was in Government it was always envisaged that the high-speed lines would eventually connect with Scotland. In the long term, that will be crucial to the economies of Scotland and the English regions.
The new network would overcome some of the limitations of the old network, which has three separate and poorly interconnected main lines, each with own its London terminus. An important factor is that the high-speed network would enable key local, national and international networks to be better integrated. In particular, including an interchange station with the new Crossrail line just west of Paddington on the approach of the high-speed line to central London would greatly enhance the benefits of both Crossrail and the high-speed line. A Crossrail interchange station could deliver a fast and frequent service to London’s west end, the City and docklands. The total journey time from central Birmingham to Canary Wharf could be just 70 minutes.
A boost to the west midlands economy is anticipated to the tune of £5.3 billion a year, and to that of the north-west of £10.6 billion a year at today’s rates.
The hon. Gentleman said that there would be a benefit to the west midlands. Is he aware that I asked a parliamentary question of the Department for Transport in order to ascertain what the benefits would be to Staffordshire? The Department responded that it had made no such analysis.
I was referring to the west midlands metropolitan area, but I am not responsible for the replies given by the Department for Transport.
On that point, the figure cited by the hon. Gentleman of just over £5 billion came from the West Midlands chamber of commerce. The figure was generated in the region, and one would imagine that it is most unlikely that some of the money did not come from Staffordshire.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point.
If, in time, an extension of the network to Scotland was to proceed, there would be a benefit of nearly £20 billion to its economy. HS 2 believes that the benefits of high-speed rail far outweigh the estimated costs, with the project yielding more than £2 of benefit for every £1 of cost.
There are clearly several arguments in favour of high-speed rail. It is a possible solution to the expected increase in passenger numbers, it will undoubtedly slash journey times and it could allow a much better integration of existing rail services regionally, nationally and internationally. However, we have to take on board the fact that not everyone is in favour of high-speed rail. I accept that, as the hon. Members for Wycombe and for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) said, some communities will be impacted through the construction and operation of high-speed rail. The Labour Government were mindful of the fact that, in making proposals for a route, there has to be an attempt to minimise local impacts while achieving the wider objectives.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there would be merit in considering ways to give benefits to those communities impacted by the track—for example, by having spurs off the new tracks that offered interim stops on occasion?
That might be one solution to such concerns.
We need to ensure that people are fully consulted on changes that could affect their areas, and not only on the Chilterns or Buckinghamshire but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, on Euston and Primrose Hill. Indeed, my right hon. Friend made some powerful points.
The coalition Government must have meaningful, extensive and detailed consultation, particularly with the local communities affected, and they must be keen to listen and to balance the concerns of those communities, many of which we have heard about today in this debate. No route in a project of this significance will be without controversy, which is why there absolutely must be adequate consultation of the affected communities, together with consultation on the exceptional hardship scheme for those whose properties may be affected by proximity to the preferred route.
May I ask the Minister how detailed the consultation process about the plan for the new route will be? Will it give us a detailed account of the streets, properties and landholdings that will be directly affected by the planning process? Significant time will be needed to ensure that consultation is properly conducted and considered. I welcome the proposed exceptional hardship scheme for those whose properties may be directly affected. What time scales do the Government have to introduce provisions for owners of properties nearby the planned route that may not necessarily be directly affected by the construction? Finally, can the Minister tell me how many applications have been received so far for the exceptional hardship scheme?
The Labour Government proposed the high-speed rail that would link London to Birmingham and eventually to Manchester, Leeds and beyond, which is the widely backed “Y”-shaped network. I welcome the fact that the coalition Government, after a few wobbles, have come out and supported that network instead of their unworkable “S”- shape. That was perhaps not so much a U-turn as a “Y-turn”, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras has now thrown an “H”-shape into the mix.
I turn now to some specific issues. What consideration will be given to ensuring that the high-speed rail network is available to rail freight, which is an increasingly important part of the railway jigsaw? Does the Minister plan to have further talks with the Scottish Executive about possible network extension to Scotland in due course? Will she outline the time scale that the Government envisage for commencing construction of the first part of the network? Has her Department begun work on preparing the hybrid Bill that would have to be presented to Parliament to make the new network a reality in this Parliament?
The high-speed rail project could be of national strategic significance to this country, and I hope that we will be able to work across the House to secure a rail link that is worthy of a great country in the 21st century.
In the brief time that I have available, I will try to run through the points made by right hon. and hon. Members, and I will write to them about any points that time prevents me from covering now.
I am very grateful to have support for high-speed rail from across the House, across parties and across the country. That support is very welcome. There was a particularly vocal presence in the debate today from Yorkshire, which was particularly welcome.
However, we recognise that it is vitally important to think with great care about the local environmental impact of the project. Of course, we had some very comprehensive accounts of the potential impact, first from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and then from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles). It is important that they are here in Westminster Hall and able to put their constituents’ point of view.
I strongly believe that careful mitigation measures can eliminate the most intrusive local impacts of high-speed rail. Modern engineering techniques give us an expanding range of ways to use sensitive design to make transport infrastructure easier to live with and less intrusive; a number of Members have referred to the example of High Speed 1, where that mitigation work has been done with some success in many areas.
I believe that it is possible to find a solution that is balanced and fair; that generates the significant economic benefits of high-speed rail for the country as a whole, and that is fair to the local communities that are directly affected by whatever line of route is ultimately chosen. Hopefully, this debate will take us closer to finding a solution and choosing that route.
We intend the consultation to be inclusive, wide-ranging and comprehensive, providing a range of opportunities for Members and their constituents to go through these kinds of concerns about the impact on landscapes and communities. Our consultation is designed to run for about five months, which is longer than the statutory minimum. We take this process very seriously, because we know the gravity of the concern that is felt in some communities.
The business case for high-speed rail was discussed by a number of Members. We are absolutely confident about the very significant benefits that a line from London to Birmingham would generate and we believe that those economic benefits are even more significant when they are linked to a “Y”-shaped high-speed rail network that connects the capital with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
I welcome the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (David Mowat) and for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) about the importance of using transport infrastructure to try to remedy imbalances between economic prosperity in different parts of the country. There is strong local support in much of the country for high-speed rail.
In answer to the questions from a number of Members about Scotland, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne)—the shadow Rail Minister—has already pointed out, the “Y”-shaped network to deliver high-speed rail to Manchester and Leeds could enable us to deliver journey times to London from Edinburgh and Glasgow of about three and a half hours. There is also the issue of promoting the air-to-rail switch, which is so important to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). In due course, we certainly want to see a genuinely national network built, and that is why we are in regular dialogue with the Scottish Government. We are happy to work with them on establishing how we bring that network about in the future.
A number of Members have talked about the carbon impact of high-speed rail. I believe that high-speed rail can play an important role in our plans to develop a low-carbon economy, particularly by promoting the air-to-rail switch that a number of Members referred to. Even with our current energy generation mix, high-speed rail is a much lower-carbon option than flying.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe argued that the Government had overstated the expected increase in demand. He and a number of other Members sought to challenge the business case. However, there is no doubt that the benefits generated by the extension of high-speed rail to Birmingham will exceed the cost of building the line.
Furthermore, it is clear that there is already a significant crowding problem on our railways. The simple fact is that we need this new railway. Important parts of our rail network are already suffering from serious overcrowding problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) mentioned, one only needs to go to Euston on a Friday night to see how popular the railways have become. There is simply no realistic alternative that would give us the level of benefit that high-speed rail will generate.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister accept, however, that greater consideration should be given to using an existing transport corridor rather than tearing through great swathes of English countryside?
It is always the case that, when efforts are made to construct these major transport projects, there are advantages to using existing transport corridors. However, sometimes using those existing corridors is simply not possible. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State for Transport asked High Speed 2 to look again at the route that it had proposed and at the environmental impact of that route. In a very short time, we will publish a package for consultation that will take on board a number of the concerns that have already been raised with the Government and with HS 2, to mitigate the environmental impact of the project.
I want to go back to the points that were made about using upgrades to the conventional rail network to relieve the capacity problem. It is simply not possible to relieve the capacity problem without a new line. Without delivering a further significant uplift in rail capacity, some of our key transport corridors will become even more overcrowded in the years to come. I strongly believe that high-speed rail is the best way to deliver that new capacity, not least because it would free up space on existing networks for more commuter, regional and freight services. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned that issue and I think that there is potential for his constituents to benefit from the extra space on the west coast main line that will be released by high-speed rail. Dramatically improving connectivity between a number of our most important cities has the potential to change the economic geography of the country.
As for the environmental impact, I recognise that our plans for high-speed rail are already having an impact on some communities, even in advance of the final decisions on the project. That is why we have launched an exceptional hardship scheme, to assist those with an urgent need to sell their properties and move home.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that, as and when any final route is chosen, we will put measures in place to address blight, and those measures will go well beyond the requirements of statute. I say that in response to a number of points that were made about the exceptional hardship scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire had some concerns about how the scheme was working. I was not aware of those difficulties, so if he wants to write to me about the specific issues I will be happy to look into them.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State visited the line of route that has been recommended by HS 2 Ltd. He acknowledges the vital importance of designing a new high-speed rail line in a way that will reduce local impact where possible and that will take on board the types of points that we have heard this morning.
We fully recognise the need to balance the benefits of the high-speed rail project with the local impact on landscape and communities. In the summer, the Secretary of State instructed HS 2 to consider how best to improve its recommended route 3 to reduce any negative social and environmental impacts. An initial report has already been published that identifies a number of ways to reduce problems on the northern part of HS 2’s preferred route. That work is continuing in relation to a number of other areas of sensitivity—
Order. I am afraid that we have run out of time for this debate. We now move on to the next debate.