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High-Speed Rail

Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2011

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, for what I think is the first time.

Members may wonder why we are having yet another debate on High Speed 2. In fact, we are not; we are having a debate on high-speed rail in the north. I requested this debate partly because when we discussed the issue in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago, I felt that there were not enough contributions from the north, and I wanted to rebalance the equation. I do not want to debate the merits of HS2 today, and I do not really want to talk about anything south of Birmingham if I can help it. I want the debate to focus on the north, and I do not intend to stop at the Scottish border. I deliberately used the word “north” to encourage Scottish Members to participate in the debate.

I will try to make clear the terms of the debate, and also state what the debate is not. I used the phrase “high-speed rail in the north” to ensure that the debate was not about HS2—which to my mind is ultra high speed—but about high-speed rail as a concept. Equally, I make a plea for a slightly more consensual style, compared to previous debates. New infrastructure projects understandably excite high passions, but wandering into Prime Minister’s questions wearing a colourful badge that cannot be read by anyone watching TV, let alone other Members, does not benefit either set of arguments, and diminishes the dignity of the House. That does not mean, however, that we have to accept a mushy consensus on infrastructure projects. I accept that we will disagree, but I hope that we can do so in a polite and measured way.

If I were given billions of pounds to spend on transport in the north of England, would I immediately reach for high-speed rail links to London? Perhaps not. When “The Northern Way” transport compact first got going in 2006-07, it did not mention high-speed rail because that was simply not on the agenda. It focused on improved connectivity in the north of England, rather than between the north and the south, and it highlighted the importance of the trans-Pennine corridor. That importance was emphasised by the Government’s switch from the S-route to the Y-route, together with the issue of what to do with the Woodhead tunnels. I would also welcome a little reassurance from the Minister on the northern hub. Even if it is to be delivered in parts, will the sum of those parts still equal the whole of the vision? I trust that it will.

We must consider how we differ from our European counterparts. If I think of the Liverpool-Manchester metropolis, it rather reminds me of the Rhine-Ruhrgebiet in Germany, another heavily industrialised urban area. One difference, however, between this country and the Rhine-Ruhr area is the comparatively poor transport links found in our metropolises. We can learn a lot just by looking at Germany for a change.

I have no shortage of material for this debate, and although I could probably speak for an hour and a half without trying, I promise that I have no intention of doing so. I will try to take a step back and look at some of the more thematic policy issues and the effect that a decision to proceed with any form of high-speed rail north of Birmingham will have on Government policy making. I do not want to see half-baked solutions that run to other people’s political timetables.

Quality of policy making is crucial; it is what I came into politics to try to improve, and no matter what party is in power, I think that the quality and detail of public policy making in this country is bad. The quality of our understanding of transport in the north of England is, to my mind, entirely due to work by “The Northern Way” over the past five years, and I mourn its loss greatly. I do not blame the Government entirely for that loss, and it is a shame that many of the local actors who had the chance to fund “The Northern Way” after the closure of the regional development agencies did not take the opportunity to do so. The loss of “The Northern Way” has created a fundamental problem, because we have lost the pan-northern perspective and the ability to weigh up differing priorities in Yorkshire, the north-west and the north-east. We are seeing a retreat back to lists of regional priorities, with Manchester wanting one thing, Liverpool another, and Leeds something else, and there is no body that tries to pull those things together and says, “Your proposal is slightly better than that one.” We need some form of co-ordinating body that would allow such prioritisation.

I participated in the Transport Committee inquiry into high-speed rail—I assure hon. Members that it was a mammoth undertaking, and I do not think that my life will ever be the same—so I know how much controversy there has been not only over the detail of the route, but about which field the line will or will not go through, how noisy or quiet it will be, how big this will be and how small that will be. We have perhaps never seen such controversy over a single infrastructure project. The debate was based on the single premise—the single fallacy—that merely building infrastructure automatically promotes economic growth. It does not. It is not a case of “Build it and they will come”; we need look only at so-called Stratford International station to know that. Stratford International station in east London is remarkable in having no international train services—most impressive. It is a classic example of the sort of white elephant that those of us who are concerned about levels of public expenditure do not wish to see.

The Department for Transport’s promotion of high-speed rail has focused on the three Ls—Lille, Lyon and Lleida—as examples of how investment in high-speed rail in Europe has brought economic growth to the surrounding areas. However, for every city named by the DFT, the anti-high-speed rail campaign provides an alternative, and says that high-speed rail makes no difference at all, is a total waste of money and that we should not bother. At the end, it is rather like the Eurovision song contest on a city basis, with “nul points for Zaragoza,” and “dix points for Brussels.” That is not informative, and what matters is not so much the location, the name of the city or how good its PR effort is, but what the local government in the area chooses to do in response to hearing that it will get a high-speed rail link. That critical variable is often overlooked in the debate.

In evidence to the Transport Committee, Professor Tomaney from Newcastle university stated:

“The stations themselves do not, on their own, provide those development opportunities. What is required is much larger-scale economic development planning.”

Hon. Members may think that I, a Conservative, would hide my head under the desk at that statement—“How could he possibly suggest economic planning? What an appalling thing to do!”—but it is more subtle than that. If we know that a high-speed rail link will go to the centre of Manchester, we have to deal not only with issues of dispersal, an integrated transport system and whether the buses and suburban trains interlink, but wider policy issues about housing and jobs, and schools policy in particular, which is often overlooked in transport planning. We should look at the wider policy, not just at issues of transport, and as the Government move forward and consider how to progress with high-speed rail, they must look at more than just transport.

There are risks, and it is silly to pretend that high-speed rail will be only a good thing and that nothing bad could ever happen. Professor Roger Vickerman also gave evidence to the Transport Committee, and pointed out that although the arrival of the TGV in Lyon and Lille benefited those two cities, it also sucked in some of the economic activity from towns in their immediate peripheries. Unless the correct decisions are taken locally, high-speed rail could arrive in one city and cause a diminution in economic activity in a neighbouring city, suburb or minor area. That is a possibility, but certainly not a given. There are no givens in this debate because, as I say, the situation depends entirely on the decision making at local and regional level. Whether someone is a supporter or a detractor—a friend or foe—of high-speed rail, they have to agree that that must be part of the debate, and I argue strongly that it has been absent from the debate so far.

As a fellow member of the Transport Committee I, too, was on the visit to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Although we heard that argument made in Lille, in Frankfurt we heard a counter-argument: the Frankfurt to Cologne line had a significant impact in improving the whole region, not just the two places where there was a station. People argued strongly in Frankfurt that there was a benefit for the whole region between those two areas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is correct and almost makes my point for me: it is horses for courses. We can all point to examples of high-speed rail achieving one thing in one area and a different thing in another. The most interesting aspect of the German example that he points to is that Frankfurt is at the confluence of about four different Länder. It is quite difficult for Frankfurt to have regional planning when, at the level at which that tends to occur, it has about four different bodies to try to liaise with. That again shows the difficulties, but also that if the will is there, the correct decisions can be made that lead to economic growth.

That is perhaps the challenge that we have to face: at what level do we seek to take the decisions? I am firmly of the view that local transport consortiums—or whichever range of acronyms we wish to append to the matter this week—are crucial for moving forward. I would welcome information from the Government on how that is progressing. We can point to Transport for Greater Manchester as a very good example of what can be done. It is interesting and welcome that the differing integrated transport authorities are all moving at what I suggest is a slightly different pace in their own particular direction. Standardisation is being lost, and there is, I think, more local sensibility. That can only be a good thing, but it still does not resolve the problem that I shall refer to, with apologies to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), as the Skelmersdale problem. I mean no disrespect to that fine town.

Skelmersdale is in the travel-to-work area of at least two major conurbations—Manchester and Liverpool—yet it is not in either the Greater Manchester or Merseyside city regions. It is in the district of West Lancashire. That poses a challenge for transport planning, because we seem to have in this country a culture that says, “You are where you are. You are defined by your boundaries, not by your economic patterns or what actually happens in an area.” We also seem to have an unwritten rule that says, “You can only be in one club at any one time. You can’t be in both the Greater Manchester area and the Merseyside area at the same time. Heaven forfend!” That has consequences, as I hope the hon. Lady would agree, for her constituents, in terms of improving transport links to both the main areas.

The hon. Gentleman encapsulates the problem that my constituents have. The new town of Skelmersdale is 50 years old this year. It has no railway station and very poor transport links, and it is therefore isolated. If we could extend the development of high-speed rail through the north-west, that would bring economic benefits right round, not just to the Skelmersdale part of my constituency, but to the Ormskirk and Burscough areas, with the Burscough curves joining lines up to Preston. It is nonsense that in the 21st century we should be caught between two stools. We have no railway station and no transport links, and are therefore losing out on a huge economic benefit.

I thank the hon. Lady for that informative intervention. I know that there is no shortage of transport proposals in West Lancashire. She has not even mentioned the Ormskirk bypass yet. We could go on and on, I am sure.

To my mind, city regions have the best potential. I know that potentially they are also controversial. I am sure that many people would not want a return to Merseyside. However, I welcome the proposals from Lord Heseltine and Terry Leahy; if we are to have elected mayors in our great cities, they probably need to cover more than just the council of that name.

As a proud Merseysider, I have to correct the hon. Gentleman and tell him that Merseyside still exists, certainly in transport terms. One of the important things that he is telling us is that interconnectivity between city regions that cover places such as Skelmersdale, and from Wirral to north Wales, is among the most important factors. There is already some good practice on the ground, certainly in Merseyside, in that respect. Is his point that we should deal with the reality of people’s lives, rather than having arbitrary decisions made in Whitehall about what councils do or do not exist?

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) that this should be about people’s lives. Let us imagine that high-speed rail is coming to Liverpool. That will have an impact on the lives of people outside the former Merseyside as well as inside it, whether they are in Cheshire, Halton, Skelmersdale or wherever, and we have to respond to that.

I would like to turn the focus slightly away from Lancashire and Merseyside for a second. The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful argument for the importance of local networks and making the most of high-speed rail. That applies in Scotland as well. Does he agree that it is important that a decision and commitment is made at an early stage that the routes will run to Glasgow and Edinburgh, not just because that will benefit our areas but because it will bring particular added value to communities further south, which will gain from the extra business that the extension to Edinburgh and Glasgow will bring to communities all along the line?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is precisely why I used the phrase “high-speed rail in the north”—because I did mean north as far as Scotland, and not just to the Scottish border. As I said, we seem to spend a lot of time trading cases of where high-speed rail has worked and where it has not. I have tried to ban the word “transformative” from my lexicon, because I have got so bored of hearing people tell me that high-speed rail will be transformative. I am not quite sure in what way or with what evidence—they just like to say it because it sounds good.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, because it is on an issue that we have been talking about, but that there has not been much action around. When he talks about local areas, does he really mean that? I ask because I think that the programme will never take off unless there is a national planning committee that can oversee everything about the idea.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I spent an hour at lunchtime trying to work out whether I was a Liberal or not. I was reading the yellow book from 1928, called “Our Industrial Future”, which recommended precisely what he has referred to—a national infrastructure planning commission that would take the decisions. That is all well and good, but I come from a different political tradition. I discovered that I was a Conservative after all. The reason why I am talking so much about local decision making is that for high-speed rail to have the impact that we all want it to have—in particular, for the rebalancing of the economy that the Government so value—there are decisions that will have to be taken at local level. My concern is that if we do not think about that now, it will not happen, so I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the tenor of my remarks is designed to draw attention to where we need better local decision making, and where the DFT needs to factor local priorities into its planning.

I will try to draw my remarks to a close, because I have been going on for almost 20 minutes. In particular, I would like the Government to convene something analogous to “The Northern Way”, be it a ministerial committee for transport in the north of England, an advisory group or whatever. It should be something that will bring together all the different voices in the north for the purposes of understanding and reprioritising. A large number of projects have been proposed, with varying cost-benefit ratios that we have all looked at and analysed to the nth degree. We need some way of working out what the pan-northern priorities are. At the moment, I am concerned that that will not occur, so I hope that the Minister can reassure me on that key point.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate, with the specific title and terms of reference that he spelled out. I also congratulate him on his powerful description and analysis of many issues involved; I agree with a great deal of what he said, although not with every full stop and comma.

I want to make a few points about the project and how it relates to the north-west of England and the north of the country beyond Birmingham. I would like to draw an analogy with trams. At the moment, Manchester is trebling the size of its tram network, while Liverpool, Southampton and Leeds do not have trams. The important point that I draw from that is not that Manchester’s case, which is good for the tram network, was much better than the case of the other cities, but that the 10 districts of Greater Manchester and the three political parties were united. To cite the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), the politics in Merseyside were dysfunctional when it came to trams. Having all-party support and as much backing as possible for a project is almost as important—in some ways more important—than different economic cases, a cost-benefit analysis and an economic impact analysis.

It is important to keep such an all-party group together. This country has too little infrastructure, which damages the whole economy. One of the reasons why we have too little transport infrastructure is that we have not always been able to build an alliance between the parties. I could give example after example of where we should have had motorways, railways, trams and runways where we do not have them. Therefore I welcome a detailed debate, whether it comes from the Front Benches, the Back Benches or people with constituency involvement. The high-speed rail system is a major piece of infrastructure, which, whatever its impact to the north and the south, will help the country as a whole, and it is important to understand that.

I have read many cost-benefit analyses over the years, and while it is important to prepare them, the way in which the Treasury, the Department for Transport and other Departments look at them means that they contain so many variables that one can make them say anything one likes.

The important thing about the project is that it has been justified on two grounds. The first is that there is an immediate issue with capacity between Birmingham and the south, and the second, which comes along later, is that it will help rebalance the country, and the country certainly needs rebalancing.

On the second justification, I have spent my political life trying to get investment into the north of England and into Manchester in particular. If we want to use the project to rebalance the country, it is odd to start building it from the south to the north and not put a spade in the ground in the north of England for potentially 15 or 16 years. The reason for that is the reason that we always get from the Department for Transport: the capacity problem. Such an analysis of why we invest in infrastructure is one of the reasons why 95% of our capital expenditure on transport in England goes into London and the south-east—it is crowded there. If we use that as a basis for our investment decisions, we will always put it there and increase crowdedness, effectively subsidising congestion. I would argue that if we want to make an impact on the north-south divide, we need to start in the north and look at all the projects that are determined by congestion and overcrowding as economically transformative. I know that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys will object to my use of that term; I rarely use it, but it is important in the context of getting as many bangs for our bucks economically, as well as dealing with the immediate transport problem. I ask the Department to look at the issue generally.

I think that the claims for the impact on the north of England from High Speed 2 are ambiguous. I did not go on the trips—I was not serving on the Transport Committee at the time—but there is certainly a case that Cordoba, Turin, Lille and Lyon have benefited. One could also make the case that high-speed rail has sometimes had a negative impact on those cities. The same is true with roads, or with any transport infrastructure, because roads go both ways: they can take economic activity away from or into an area.

I represent Stoke-on-Trent, where there are fears that High Speed 2 could reduce connectivity if the line passes the city and does not stop there, while the capacity on the west coast main line—the Manchester-London route—is diminished. While Stoke-on-Trent might benefit from the growth of Manchester or Birmingham, there are fears in the city about its own connectivity with HS2.

There is a fear. There are genuine worries in Stoke, and potentially Coventry and south Wales, that there could be a negative impact. I would ask those areas please not to have a dog-in-a-manger attitude and say, “Let us not have this excellent new piece of transport infrastructure.” Let us work out how we can get investment in those areas, using either high-speed rail or something else. If people end up just opposing the project, they will damage the economic and transport base of the whole country.

Does not the point that was semi-raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) underline the need for some form of regional transport planning? We do not want to build stations with no connections to the wider community and area; we want Stoke and other similar cities that are not on but near the line to have good links. We can see that in the best European systems, which is why the benefits are more widely spread there.

Absolutely. It makes sense that people can connect to other places if a high-speed line is built. I know that the timetables of the rail system in the north, which I know better than that in the midlands and Scotland, are slower than they were in 1880s—I say that in nearly every debate in which I speak. Taking out congestion points and improving the northern system and that in the rest of the country must be the best way to use the investment that is going into the project.

I want to finish on some points made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and by the Action Alliance, which opposes high-speed rail, in the document that it sent out today. First, if someone had £33 billion to spend in the north or the whole of England, they would not necessarily sit down and say, “This is it”; they would probably sit down for a long time and not agree to spend anything. However, the project is out of the starting blocks, and there are many benefits to be had from it. If someone were to ask, “Should the country have motorways?” the answer would be, “Yes, we should have motorways.” In the same way, we should have high-speed rail. That, together with all-party support, is the real justification for the £33 billion.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. High-speed rail is important to the north of England, but it needs to be developed alongside the classic network and also alongside aviation and road. We need a strategic transport policy that covers everything. High-speed rail is not the panacea, but it is part of a strategic transport plan.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Even though I am a member of the Labour party, I am always slightly cautious about having the perfect plan. When one is involved in transport plans or economic development—it does not matter whether it is in the private or the public sector—one has to be opportunistic and take what is there. Sometimes it can take too long to wait for the perfect plan. That does not mean that we should not think about how we can connect different parts of the system.

Like the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Action Alliance makes the point that high-speed rail does not automatically bring with it economic benefits. Let us take, for example, the economies of Manchester and London, or Birmingham and London. Some argue that high-speed rail exposes them to bigger markets, which is true because the train goes both ways. A dynamic city or region is at a real advantage. What city would not want to be in a bigger market so that they can attract more people and investment? Although it is possible to fail in such an area, it is easier to succeed if there is high-speed rail.

I, too, was struck by the Action Alliance analysis that when we improve connectivity, the stronger city benefits and the weaker city loses out. If we follow that logic through to the end, it means that we should close the M6, the M1 and the west coast main line, which is ridiculous.

It is ridiculous, but that does not mean that Action Alliance does not have a point in saying that it is dangerous; the world is dangerous. We have to take our opportunities to create jobs where we can. It does not automatically lead to growth, but it would be negative not to take this opportunity to have growth. To emphasise that point, let me make one more comparison between Manchester and Liverpool—I am not having a go at Liverpool because this, unlike the story about the trams, has a happy ending. There is a more solid case for saying that airports have a real economic benefit for regions. Unlike roads, they rarely have a negative impact. Merseyside county council did a lot of work on Liverpool airport. It extended the runway and got an estuarial take-off. The whole scheme should have had many advantages, but they were realised only when John Whittaker and the Peel Group took the opportunity and bought Liverpool airport and brought some commercial acumen and ability to it. There are real advantages here. I hope that we can keep the all-party alliance together because this project is important for the country as a whole. As it is called high-speed rail, perhaps it should be done from north to south because that would be slightly quicker than the schedules that are envisaged at the moment.

I was not expecting to be called. I would have preferred to wait a little before making my speech. I will be fairly brief. I want to touch on the business case figure for high-speed rail, which is estimated at 2.6, including the wider economic benefits. That is considerably higher than the business case of Crossrail. I know that we can all doubt the Department’s methodology, but nevertheless let us put that on the table first.

One of the arguments against the project is whether we can afford it. It costs £32 billion and we are in a time of recession. It is also worth saying that it will cost £2 billion a year, which will kick in more or less when Crossrail finishes. On a cash-flow basis, therefore, it is not too tough. The business case is predicated on capacity constraints. I have some conservative figures here. Over the last decade and a half, rail journeys have increased by around 5% a year. This business case assumes an increase of 1.6% a year. We do not know whether that will happen; it may not, but the figure is certainly not aggressive.

The business case has been criticised because it does not take into account people’s ability to work and be productive while travelling and therefore overestimates the benefit for time saving in terms of economic activity. It has been shown in a number of debates that such a view is false because if these trains are so full that everyone is standing up, no one can work on PCs or anything else. The business case is supported if we assume that.

In his excellent remarks, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) talked about the north-south divide, for which this project is not a panacea. However, to say that it will not make a contribution is just fatuous. We have already talked about the pamphlet from Action Alliance—I like to call them the Amersham-based Action Alliance—that came out today. The argument that the benefits would accrue more significantly to the bigger city does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It implies that the M6 and the M1 are bad because they fix the north-south divide and I find that hard to believe.

I will not speak about the wider benefits of the project other than to say that the chambers of commerce in the north-west, Leeds and Scotland have come out strongly in favour of these transformative—actually, transformative is not a bad word—benefits. The impact on the north-west economy is calculated to be around £10 billion and we need that. It is easy to unpick the business case by saying, “Actually, my town is not really on the route and it is not too good for my town because we will have to do this and we will have to do that.” The truth is that we have to look at some of these decisions regionally. If £10 billion is injected into the north-west economy, it is just not possible that that will not help Warrington, whether or not Warrington is on the spur.

I have three points for the Minister. One is about timing. Once we accept and buy into the transformation benefits, there is an issue for the north-west in how the Government are going about this. Broadly speaking, Birmingham and the west midlands will receive this infrastructure, in which we all believe, about a decade sooner than Manchester and a further decade before Scotland, which is not even on the map yet.

Does that not back up the argument that if this were to be a project that was about to begin, it should start in Scotland and move south, as well as from the south moving north?

There is certainly a case for not necessarily starting all the construction work in London and coming north. I do not know whether it should start in Scotland, Warrington or Manchester, but there is a case for going both ways. Let me come back to this timing point. There could be a decade of benefits accruing to Birmingham in inward investment, and a decade of benefits accruing to the west midlands in better links. We are all guilty in this debate of talking about links to London. It is about links not to London but to the continent of Europe through St Pancras. That decade is a worry. Given the current fashion for bringing forward infrastructure projects and the fact that the business case for this project is stronger than that of Crossrail, will the Minister tell us why we are not taking the opportunity to start some of the construction work in the north more quickly? That would take away the problem of the lost decade, which, without wishing to sound as if I lack confidence in our project management abilities, can sometimes turn into a lost decade and a half. Therefore, I am interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about the timing of the project.

We also need to pin down some of the existing uncertainties, especially on the north-south dimension. I may be wrong, but I do not think that it has even been accepted for certain that Piccadilly will be the final destination. That needs sorting out, as does the link to the airport. I do not want to become embroiled in the arguments about having a third London airport, but if we have a high-speed link between Manchester airport and Heathrow—a journey of, for example, 60 or 70 minutes, which would not be much slower than the journey to Gatwick—I find it difficult to see how there will not be some impact on, or some marginal benefit to airport congestion in the south. The whole issue of Scotland needs to be sorted out, at least in relation to the north. We have a plan—a business case—and we are beginning to understand where the route will be. However, I also want some assurance about when the route north of Birmingham will be set out, because we can then start to plan and to put in place the sort of local initiatives that we need to make the whole project work.

Finally, on local initiatives, I was struck by evidence that the north-west is a little different from Birmingham in terms of shape. Manchester and Leeds sit at the bottom of the north-west, which has a much longer shape, so connectivity matters much more, while Birmingham is more central to the west midlands. The northern hub has been mentioned, as has the need for it to be clearly linked with the whole project. I completely agree with that point, but I also agree with those who have said that we cannot just do nothing until everything is sorted. I am keen to hear assurances from the Minister on those three points.

May I remind hon. Members that if they have requested to speak via the normal channels, but wish to speak at a certain point in the debate, they should let the Chair know, so that they can be listed accordingly?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and I hope that I will not test his rules for us too much. I may mention the case for High Speed 2, but I hope that he will forgive me. I shall do so from a perspective that is different from that previously taken, so I hope that it will not trouble him.

I want to make two points. First, we sometimes forget about connectivity in the north, although everyone assumes that they know about north-south connectivity now. Secondly, I want not only to consider northern cities and to build on the comments of other Members, but to look at bits of connectivity that are smaller but none the less truly important. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions about those minor bits of transport connectivity in the north of England and in Wales.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the problem that is regularly experienced by my constituents, many of whom travel by train and are frequent users of the west coast main line. The problem is not that they cannot get to London quickly enough, because they can certainly get to London quickly, although they have trouble getting to other places fast enough; their problem is that they will probably not easily find somewhere to sit comfortably. That is a problem of capacity, not speed—I can see hon. Members nodding, for which I thank them. Watching the media, I sometimes have the impression that people think that congestion happens only in the south, and that the north of England is a traffic-free zone, where people always sit comfortably on trains. That is just not the case—if only it were. The west coast main line is very crowded.

I regularly meet people from businesses in the Wirral and the wider Merseyside area who wish to grow their businesses, but the problem is that their ability to do so is partly limited by their ability to travel. I must declare an interest in that, in a previous life, I worked for two years for Network Rail, so I am not averse to discussing engineering. I know from my time there, as the Minister will also know, that we do not begin such projects by asking ourselves what the biggest piece of infrastructure is that we can conceive of to solve the problem. We should try to do the straightforward things first, and it is worth bearing that hierarchy in mind.

The rail industry has struggled with problems of connectivity and congestion for many years. One solution is to have longer trains and longer platforms, but the west coast main line has a very limited ability to do that. Another solution is related to signalling and whether more train paths can be fitted in, but that is again very limited. I well remember—this is an important point—the impact of the west coast main line modernisation project on Liverpool, particularly when it was the capital of culture and that project was at its height. We are therefore out of options, which is why we are where we are and why we are looking at High Speed 2. There is no question but that it is needed. Business men in my constituency are desperate to travel around to grow their businesses. They ask me all the time about rail fares and about the congestion from which they suffer, and we should always keep their perspective in mind.

To my mind, the case for High Speed 2 has been made, although others may still question it, but we need to consider other elements of rail in the north. I agree with hon. Members who have spoken about the value of The Northern Way and asked whether some group might be convened to look at what projects are necessary for the whole north of England. In my previous life working in the cultural sector, one of the hardest problems was building the cultural economy in the north of England, where there are very important visitor destinations in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. The pathways between them are extremely difficult. Liverpool to Manchester is not too bad, although, given that they are only 38 miles apart, the time it takes to travel between them is not good enough, but I hope that will be assisted by electrification. However, Liverpool and Newcastle, which are two extremely important visitor destinations for this country, are not well connected, and a future priority for the Government must be to look at that.

There is a huge amount of latent demand in our economy that we should try to develop. That is true of not only the visitor economy, but other parts of the country’s economy, including the energy sector, which would be assisted by transport connectivity. At the end of the day, the transport economy is there to serve the rest of the productive economy. I might just add that I have been encouraged by the support shown for central planning in this debate, albeit tempered by the need for localism, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

A cross-north path is very important, not least to the people of Yorkshire, who want much better connectivity to Manchester and Liverpool.

The hon. Lady is making a very good case for connectivity across the north. We have always said that High Speed 2 is not the only solution and that we should create such connectivity. Recently, I took the train from Wrexham to Leeds, which took me four and a half hours, whereas people going to London arrived in about two and a half hours. Does that not make her point?

I could not have come up with a better example. Wrexham is a town I know well. Hon. Members may not know that it is a fairly large industrial hub for the Deeside industrial area. Wrexham is a lynchpin, and so is Leeds, for business and legal services. The hon. Gentleman has lighted on a classic example. I implore the Minister to keep the Wrexham to Leeds example in her head, to remind her of the scale of the challenge in the north.

I do not really like making north-south comparisons, because the south has plenty of connectivity problems, I know; but the way London acts as the hub in the middle of large spokes—that is not what we have in the north—creates some of the difficulties.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on obtaining this important and worthwhile debate. On connectivity, I am a Yorkshire MP and there are two stations in my constituency on the Leeds-Manchester line, Slaithwaite and Marsden. Already there are concerns, because of electrification and the northern hub project, about the number of stopping services that will be available once the line is sped up. However, that is not necessarily a reason for us to be wary, or to be anti-high-speed rail; it just highlights other areas for investment in the rail network. I welcome the debate and what is being said.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He clarifies exactly my point: we should be talking about what is necessary additional to High Speed 2.

My hon. Friend talked about connectivity generally and the fact that it takes quite a time to get from Liverpool to Manchester, which is a distance of 38 miles. In this general discussion I would like to drive that further. For example, Skelmersdale does not have a railway station at all, so in rail terms it could take for ever to get from Skelmersdale to Manchester, or Skelmersdale to Liverpool. Skelmersdale to Preston takes for ever. To go by road—by bus—from Skelmersdale to the local hospital in Southport takes one hour and 23 minutes. I have done it.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Ormskirk bypass earlier. People can get up and down Lancashire, but not across it. I fought and fought on that.

Sorry. Add to that the fact that there is no railway station, transport is poor and people cannot use the roads either: it is impossible. We are not talking about big things. We cannot move.

My hon. Friend’s intervention brings home why all the things we are discussing matter. When I worked in the rail industry and spent a lot of time talking to engineers, I was constantly impressed by their abilities. However, sometimes I think that they forgot, a tiny bit, about the people. We should focus on articulating, as my hon. Friend has just done, issues such as being able to get swiftly to hospital. For people who live in Skelmersdale, having options in the current hard times in the labour market, and being able to get swiftly to the employment centres of Manchester or Liverpool, is crucial. We are not engaged in a dry discussion about the best way to engineer a railway; the discussion matters to our constituents on a daily basis, and my hon. Friend made that point well.

Before coming into Parliament, I did a lot of travelling in my previous job, in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber. Getting to places from Durham is not just a matter of arriving swiftly, or at all: it is a question of the pressure being put on the roads. To go north-south from Durham, where I live, to Yorkshire, I used to travel by train. If I was going to Manchester, and had plenty of time or was staying overnight, I went by train. If I wanted to get there in a hurry, or to go to Liverpool, I drove, adding to the congestion on the motorways. We need to take that into account as well.

My hon. Friend is right. We should not aim to design bits of railway across the north just for fun, because it would be nice to have a bigger train set. We should consider the total impact of what we are doing, not least on the economy, but also, as my hon. Friend said, on the environment. People’s stress levels are also affected. People tell me that one of the great things about the new west coast main line timetable is the fact that, because it is swifter, they arrive in a relaxed way. The performance of that bit of the network has largely been good, so they arrive ready to work in a relaxed way, which is what we want.

I want to conclude by talking a little about Wales and Cheshire. I hope that that will not test the definition of the north too much. We sometimes wonder about Cheshire and how far it qualifies as part of the north. Wrexham, as I mentioned in response to an intervention, is a crucial place industrially. It links to the Deeside area where lots of businesses are located. Connectivity between Wrexham and Liverpool is very poor. There is the Wrexham to Bidston line, on which there is one service an hour—it is terrible, and I have raised it with Ministers before. We need electrification of that line and a much better service at some point in future. It would be a massive help in getting people from north Wales to Liverpool airport. The line goes through areas of severe deprivation, where we want to get people to work as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) was here earlier, and there are also issues to do with connectivity in the bit of Cheshire closest to the River Mersey. It is astonishingly difficult to travel by rail through that part of the network. I hope that in planning for the coming of High Speed 2 we will look not just at the major towns that we need to connect but at all the smaller elements of rail. The High Speed 2 project enables local areas to consider some of the planning, and work out what would best help them to make the most of High Speed 2. It is not just the major cities across the north but the smaller communities that need to be connected in, additionally, to the larger project.

The case is really made on the basis of capacity alone, but we will not achieve the benefits that are possible unless in the intervening years we focus on cities in the north, and the way to ensure the best possible connections between communities and the economies they want to work in.

The winding-up speeches will begin at exactly 20 to 4, so perhaps the remaining two speakers will divide the time accordingly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I shall be brief to allow others time to contribute. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to speak, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), my colleague on the Transport Committee, on securing the debate.

It is good to see that the subject is the impact of high-speed rail in the north, rather than concerns about its impact on particular constituencies. I am conscious that the debate about high-speed rail has so far been dominated by MPs with understandable concerns about the effect of HS2 on their constituencies and the lives of their constituents. I would not decry any hon. Member for doing their job in representing the interests of their constituents. Any infrastructure project of this size will cause a significant amount of disruption and heartache for the people it affects.

I have personal experience of the issue in my constituency, because of the difficulties with the Metrolink extensions, which the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has mentioned. Constituents have understandable concerns about changes to the local infrastructure and the impact of those changes on their lives. I understand why some residents turn against schemes that they support in principle, because of incidents in their area. That is why it is vital that the decisions that are made about the local environment and how it will be protected are clear and transparent to the people most affected on the particular route. No doubt we will have the same issue to contend with when there is more clarity about the exact routes through to the north of England, once the decisions about those routes have been made.

The last time that I took part in a debate on high-speed rail, it was timely because the Transport Committee was about to embark on its inquiry into high-speed rail. By coincidence, this debate comes the day after the Committee took quite some time to discuss the draft report. After listening to all the arguments, both for and against, I am even more convinced of the need to press ahead with high-speed rail to the north and beyond. I have always been a strong supporter of creating a high-speed rail network that connects not only Birmingham and the west midlands but the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, and Scotland. There is clear evidence that a new network is required to cope with capacity demands in the future, which is the principal argument for supporting high-speed rail to the north.

By pressing ahead with a high-speed rail network, we can ensure sufficient rail capacity for the foreseeable future. Some opponents of high-speed rail have argued that upgrading the existing main line networks would deal with any capacity constraints, but that would only address the problem in the short term. Ultimately, at some point a high-speed rail network will be necessary. For a change, we are considering long-term need rather than short-term necessity.

Some £10 billion has already been spent on upgrading the west coast main line, but on 1 March this year the new chief executive of Network Rail made it clear that the west coast main line would be at full capacity within six to 10 years. In answering my question, he said that

“the West Coast line, within 10 years at the absolute maximum, and probably six years, will be at capacity, and that is with additional carriages included in the area. We can look at other tactical interventions in that line to put more capacity in there, but in the end it comes down to capacity: we will, across a number of key parts of our network, run out of capacity.”

The chief executive of Network Rail is absolutely clear that, even with extra costly improvements, the west coast main line will not have enough capacity to deal with growth in rail travel. We need the high-speed rail network to accommodate future rail travel.

Competing services and franchises are already battling for space on the existing network. We in Manchester are lucky that we have three trains an hour to London—a train every 20 minutes. Due to the success of that franchise, Virgin wanted to extend the service to four trains an hour, but doing so would have adversely affected both local and regional services, and so Virgin’s plans were opposed locally. At every review of timetables, certain services lose out. As attempts are made to tweak the timetable to optimise capacity and services, local trains are always the losers. The creation of a high-speed rail network will release significant capacity on the existing network, allowing the expansion of those regional and local services that are completely constrained at the moment by the needs of longer-distance inter-city services.

High-speed rail is about not only improving capacity, but economic benefits. The HS2 business case concluded that phase one to the west midlands would generate £20 billion in economic benefits, and the total benefits for the Y network to Leeds and Manchester were estimated at £44 billion, including an estimated £6 billion in wider economic impacts. Geoffrey Piper, the chief executive of the North West Business Leadership Team, has argued that HS2 is

“vital for the long term prosperity of the region.”

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has rightly mentioned our visit as members of the Transport Committee to France and Germany, where there are clearly big differences in the economic benefits of high-speed rail between different areas. What is certain, however, is that high-speed rail brings economic benefits.

My only word of caution about high-speed rail relates to the potential impact on investment in the classic railway network. The north of England is crying out for investment in the rail network, and we are desperate to see the announcement of funding for the northern hub in the next control period. Opponents of high-speed rail sometimes argue that we should not proceed with the scheme because it will result in a lack of investment in the existing network as all the money is diverted into paying for the high-speed network. That must not happen, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that it will not happen.

The coalition Government have already shown a commitment to investing in rail infrastructure despite the difficult economic times. In Manchester, we all warmly welcomed the announcement in the Budget of funding for the Ordsall curve—or the Ordsall chord, or whatever people might want to call it. That project will have a dramatic impact on capacity and journey times. The investment in high-speed rail must not come at the expense of investment in the existing rail network. Instead the two must go hand-in-hand to ensure that Manchester and the rest of the north of England reap the full benefits of high-speed rail.

Thank you, Ms Dorries, for squeezing me in at the end of the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I shall try to be brief.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and geographical co-partner in the Fylde area, who set the tone for the debate, which has been of a much higher standard than previous debates on this topic. The cross-party nature of the debate today has been extremely successful.

Having said that, I shall disagree with my hon. Friend in saying that we have already had high-speed rail in my constituency. That involved the first west coast main line in the 19th century, which went from Euston station to the Euston hotel in Fleetwood, which was the end of the west coast main line. The train ran at between 30 mph and 50 mph—apparently it did not frighten the cows, but it transformed Fleetwood. As the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) has said about the railway in her constituency, that railway has now gone, although the line itself is still there. In fact, the Minister has actually stood on that empty railway line, which runs from Fleetwood to Poulton. One can see that the decline of Fleetwood was matched by the decision to end that railway. Perhaps if the 1928 yellow book on rail safety had been put into practice, we would not have had that disaster.

High Speed 2 will be transformative, but the line will go through my constituency, as is the case with other hon. Members who have spoken today. The argument is not between north and south, because there will be similar arguments in the north to those in the south about exactly where the line should be.

Like the constituencies of the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for my constituency this issue is about connectivity and releasing capacity. I want to add to that something that has been mentioned in the past, particularly by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). If anybody remembers the last time that the west coast main line was upgraded, they will know that it took more than 10 years and caused absolute chaos. Anybody who thinks that we can tinker any further with that line and produce any extra capacity must take a serious look at the history over the past 15 years.

I appear to be running out of time, so I will conclude by welcoming what the Government have done already. I particularly support those hon. Members who have said that high-speed rail is not the key answer to the north-south divide, but it is a start. This issue is not about a poor north and a rich south, because we have really successful businesses in the north, including BAE Systems, the nuclear industry and what is coming in the future, but it is about the national economy. For the coalition Government and MPs alike, high-speed rail is becoming the touchstone of the coalition Government’s commitment to do something about that divide between the north and the south, which exists, and even more importantly about links to Scotland. I support the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, who asked, “Why did we not start the building from Glasgow and Edinburgh down?” And I also hope that the hybrid Bill, which will be introduced by the Minister, will mention not only Birmingham but Manchester and Leeds, and hopefully Glasgow and Edinburgh, too.

Thank you, Ms Dorries. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing what has been an excellent debate, with worthwhile contributions from all parties, including an interesting contribution from the hon. Gentleman himself. He made many good points. He also spoke about the need for an all-party consensus on this issue and today he has spoken, if I may say so, like a one-man all-party consensus. He said that even today he has searched his soul and he remains a Conservative, and that is fine. However, in bemoaning the loss of the regional development agencies and the Northern Way, he is speaking like a Labour Member.

I will of course give way to the hon. Gentleman, but before I do so I will just add that, in castigating his own Government, he is acting like a Liberal Democrat.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am fully behind the decision to abolish the regional development agencies.

If the hon. Gentleman says so, that is fine. How he will get on with his colleagues after today I do not know, but whenever he puts forward sensible proposals, we will work constructively with him to further shared objectives, if he is willing to do so.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points about the northern hub, but Opposition Members believe that it is important to guard against letting the Government off and facilitating them by easing up on lobbying about delivering the project in parts and effectively leaving sections of the northern hub on the shelf.

The Labour Government had 13 years to deliver the northern hub but they did not do any of it. We have already committed to delivering a major plank of it—the Ordsall curve.

The Minister knows that much progress was made in planning under the Labour Government. It is critical to the area that the current Administration finish the job we started and I hope that, in her reply, she will expand on her attitude towards taking the project in parts.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is slightly odd of the Minister to describe us as having had 13 years to deliver the northern hub? The Labour party might have been in government for 13 years, but much of the first half of that time was spent sorting out the mess created by privatisation, and much of the second half was about developing the kind of proposals that we have spent our afternoon talking about.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She knows that we took forward high-speed rail and the High Speed 2 project. We want the project completed by a future Labour Government.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that only a few years ago, in 2007, the then Labour Secretary of State for Transport, Ruth Kelly, produced a White Paper that ruled out high-speed rail for 30 years? It was the Conservatives who led the debate on high-speed rail.

Let us see what the Minister says today about taking forward what are Labour’s proposals. I want to come on to why it is critical that she strengthen her commitment to the north of England.

In the manner of the debate, it might help if northern Members of all political complexions could keep some consensus about the issue we are trying to debate.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am trying to set out the grounds for a consensus. I might suggest that if people did not keep intervening on me—[Interruption]––and disagreeing with me, I might be able to make more progress.

I will give way one more time and then I really need to make some progress because I have only 10 minutes.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Shadow Front-Benchers have been ambivalent about this issue over the past 18 months? The Evening Standard recently stated that Labour had announced:

“a root and branch review of…transport policy with nothing ruled in or out,”

including high-speed rail. Is that no longer the position?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been in the House over the past couple of weeks for the important Back-Bench debate on high-speed rail, in which we set out with crystal clarity our support for the project. We were absolutely right to look at the project again in Opposition because it is a major one and will require substantial and sustained investment. We have concluded that we will back the Government, and try to strengthen their resolve when we think they are not giving enough of a commitment to the north.

I am sorry to have to intervene yet again. On Monday, the hon. Gentleman’s party announced support for a version of HS2 that would go through Heathrow and up the M40, which was the model that the Conservative party proposed pre-election, so can he confirm that he is not now supporting the Government model?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and I want to get on to it. I hope that I can now get an opportunity to do so.

We believe that the north of England and Scotland, indeed the whole UK, deserve a proper commitment from the Government to a new high-speed line running right up to Manchester and Leeds. Many Members on both sides have made that point today, and I hope that they will support us in agreeing that failure by the Government to legislate for that in one go leaves a question mark over their commitment to jobs and growth in the north. We urge the Government to reconsider, and I hope that the Minister will come back having done so.

The first stage of High Speed 2, as far as Birmingham, is vital transport infrastructure. It relieves the already mentioned congestion and overcapacity on the main line from Euston and cuts journey times to the west midlands significantly. It provides new capacity to shift freight on to rail, and could provide—from the outset, Opposition Members hope—fast links to Heathrow airport from across the country. On that point—as it was raised—the Minister was quoted as saying that our alternative suggestion was unhelpful.

Given the strength of our support for the overall scheme and the widespread unease about the current route, which is shared by many Government Members, I hope that the Minister will make clear what she really thinks in her closing remarks. Does she recognise that linking directly to Heathrow would strengthen the project because it would be cheaper overall than building the proposed route with a separate spur, it would increase the opportunity to lever in private investment in a way that the Old Oak Common proposal does not, and it would generate a complementary benefit for Heathrow by providing a rail substitute for short-haul flights, thereby releasing capacity, and that it is therefore worthy of serious consideration?

The second stages of HS2 beyond the west midlands to Manchester and Leeds would provide benefits that dwarf those of the first stage. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys does not like the word “transformative”, but this project could redraw the economic geography of the UK and that is why there is such wide-ranging support for the stages beyond Birmingham, not only from Members, as demonstrated today, but from business groups and local authorities across the north. Once completed, HS2 would bring Leeds and Manchester within 80 minutes of London and 96 minutes of Liverpool. In addition to the tens of thousands of extra jobs, it would create new businesses, new investment, a modal shift from domestic air to rail, more reliable journeys, more frequent trains and more seats, and God knows we need that on the line. A clearer commitment now to the extension beyond Birmingham, would make the business case for HS2 stronger and private sector investment more likely and secure valuable political and business support across the north.

There has been no shortage of warm words from Ministers in recent months, but we need a commitment to one hybrid Bill. There is no need to delay getting spades into the ground on stage one if the Government decide to re-consult and put the route to the north in the Bill.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the two Front-Bench speakers have a total of 20 minutes, so will he please make this his last minute?

Absolutely. I was in my final minute. I hope that the Minister will make her commitment to the north clear, as it is currently under question. We know that we cannot start talking about detailed ticketing prices, but when will she agree to begin setting out the funding model as it affects passengers? High-speed rail that only the wealthiest people can afford will never deliver the full potential that communities across the north richly deserve.

Thank you, Ms Dorries. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate. I am sorry for my coughing fit during his speech; I was moved to tears not by emotion but by the flu. We have had a good debate—well informed, constructive in tone and cross-party—and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

On the points raised, the opponents of High Speed 2, who are thin on the ground today, claim that better, faster transport between north and south will pull economic activity into London and suck it out of regional cities. That is defeatist and thoroughly misguided. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) pointed out in his usual incisive and informed manner, isolation is not the way to ensure that our northern cities thrive. I have every confidence that bringing north and south closer together by shrinking journey times will provide a major boost to growth in the north. That confidence is based on the evidence from our European neighbours, which has been discussed in some detail.

It is not only places served directly by HS2 that will benefit from the project; so will many other towns and cities as trains run off it on to the existing network. From Preston and Liverpool in the west to York and Newcastle in the east, journey times will be reduced and connectivity improved, and the economic boost will be felt across the north of England.

This debate has rightly focused on passenger traffic, but does my right hon. Friend agree that a spin-off benefit is that High Speed 2 will release capacity in the classic network for freight transport by rail, boosting all parts of the United Kingdom?

I agree thoroughly. I will come to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has been influential not just today but in the general debate on the issue. On the route up to Scotland, the Government are always open to working with the Scottish Government on such proposals. Why did we decide to start in the south rather than the north? As he will be aware, the rationale is that crowding is more serious on the southern leg of the west coast line, but we are anxious to press ahead as quickly as possible. I understand the frustration expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South about the pace of delivery, but I emphasise, agreeing with the points made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, that in order to make progress on the project as quickly as possible, we need to retain cross-party consensus.

I welcome the assurances given by the Opposition in the Back-Bench debate on the Floor of the House, but Labour’s decision to propose a new route after the consultation closed was odd. It strikes me as last-minute, and looks suspiciously like game playing. However, I assure hon. Members that all route proposals submitted by the 50,000 people who took part in the consultation will be considered thoroughly.

The Minister is being clear—well, specific—about the point “submitted to the consultation”. Is she saying that our suggestion is being considered or not?

I am saying that all 50,000 responses from the people who took the time to submit them before the consultation deadline will be thoroughly considered.

We see phases 1 and 2 of the high-speed rail project to Manchester and Leeds as the starting point for delivering a genuinely national network, but we should not underestimate the benefits that Scotland will gain from the proposed Y network even before high-speed rail goes north of the border. Trains running off the high-speed line to Scotland will cut journey times to about three and a half hours, producing major economic and connectivity benefits for Scotland, tipping the balance in favour of rail rather than air and providing significant environmental benefits as people switch from planes to trains.

We are not pursuing HS2 just because of the positive economic benefits. The case for high-speed rail rests on the pressing need to prevent big problems that would otherwise be heading down the track towards us. The demand for inter-city transport capacity is growing strongly. If we sit back and fail to deal with the capacity time bomb set to explode within the next 10 to 20 years, we will do lasting damage to our economy. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) pithily put it, in the end, it comes down to capacity. If we do nothing, our key transport arteries will clog up, choking growth and destroying jobs in the north and elsewhere. It is neither viable nor responsible to sit back, do nothing and hope for the best, as other Governments have done in the face of similar problems. HS2 is not about shaving time off the journey between London and Birmingham; it is about delivering the transport capacity between our cities that is essential if our economy is to thrive in future.

However many times they are tweaked and repackaged, none of the alternatives proposed comes near to matching the benefits that HS2 can offer. None can release the capacity that is crucial, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) pointed out, to the Government’s high-speed rail strategy. On the contrary, the options favoured by opponents of HS2 would apply major new pressures to timetables on our existing railways, fundamentally damaging reliability, as the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Manchester, Withington pointed out. They would also involve immense disruption to the line during construction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) discussed.

Turning to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, the Northern Way did effective work. Like him, I want local enterprise partnerships and local authorities to have more of a say in transport decisions. I agree that it can be beneficial for local authorities to come together to make joint decisions about travel to work areas, but we do not want such solutions to be imposed from above. They must be bottom-up and proposed by the areas concerned. Like him and the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, I have great admiration for the work done in Manchester to deliver an integrated authority that considers transport issues across the board for a major travel to work area.

I assure the House that investing in HS2 does not mean that we will stop investing in and improving our current transport networks. We recognise fully the importance of continuing to enhance our existing network, particularly by improving links between northern cities, not least because that is essential if we are to spread the benefits of HS2. Despite the deficit, we are undertaking the biggest programme of rail improvements since the Victorian era, many of which will benefit the north. Electrification will benefit Manchester, Liverpool, Wigan and Blackpool. The Ordsall chord project, which has received the go-ahead 30 years after it was first proposed, will benefit Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull. That is only phase 1 of the northern hub project. Our commitment to it demonstrates how seriously we view its importance and that we recognise the benefits that it can bring. We will assess it and consider carefully, when deciding what improvements can be delivered in the next rail control period, whether we can deliver the whole programme.

The intercity express programme will create new jobs in the north and a brand-new fleet of trains. New Pendolino carriages will be delivered on the west coast in the next few months. Manchester’s Metrolink extension is going ahead, and just a few days ago, Burnley and Accrington residents welcomed the fact that funding had finally been secured for the Todmorden curve. We are committed to continuing strong investment in the north of England to help its economy grow, complementing the benefits that will be brought by high-speed rail.

In conclusion, the HS2 consultation received more than 50,000 responses, every one of which will be used to inform the Government’s forthcoming decisions on high-speed rail. I welcome the valuable contributions made in this debate.