[Relevant documents: Thirteenth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2013-14, on HS2 and the environment, HC 1076, and the Government response, HC (2014-15) 216.]
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. You may have liked to have been down in this part of the Chamber to speak not exactly in favour of High Speed 2, but I welcome you to the Chair. I also welcome all my colleagues, and I am delighted that so many of them, particularly my Buckinghamshire colleagues and ministerial colleagues, have turned up to listen and contribute to today’s debate on behalf of their constituents, particularly in light of the achievement of having secured this debate. I think I am the last person to secure a debate on HS2 in this Parliament, although I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) is also in the room, as he was the first person in this Parliament to do so.
Tomorrow, the Commons will prorogue, after all Bills have received Royal Assent. However, one Bill will not have received Royal Assent and, uniquely, will be carried over to the next Parliament—the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill. This project is so large—so gargantuan—that it is being carried over into the next Parliament. It is the largest peacetime infrastructure project that we have seen in this country, and it cannot be dealt with in just one Parliament. Unless an incoming Government think again, it will continue very much as it is currently planned. However, I want the Government to think again, no matter what political complexion inherits the government of this country after the election on 7 May.
After six years of opposing this project, the comment I hear most is, “Surely HS2 cannot be going ahead.” That is always followed by a Victor Meldrew moment for constituents, or anybody who learns about HS2, and they say, “I don’t believe it!” What they cannot believe are the justifications claimed by Government and officials for spending such a large sum on a project with such doubtful merits for most of the population and in the vested interests of the few who stand to benefit, particularly those who stand to benefit financially.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing a debate on this very thorny issue for many of our constituents. Does she agree with my assessment that if whoever forms the next Government wish to carry on with this white elephant project, they will have to come back to this House of Parliament and ask for another huge increase in the budget for HS2?
That certainly is a possibility, which I shall refer to later, because this morning we had another adverse report, this time from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. If this project goes ahead as proposed, I think many people will have to suspend disbelief, and the Government’s pockets will have to be even deeper.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way so early in the debate, and I congratulate her on her long-standing campaign on this issue. Does she agree that the £50 billion so far earmarked for HS2 could be spent on infrastructure projects right across the country to everyone’s benefit—to the nation’s benefit—and not solely on HS2, which as she says, has again been scrutinised unfavourably this week?
That is absolutely right. Many of our local organisations got together in Buckinghamshire and named their organisation 51m, because had the money been spent in another way, it could have resulted in £51 million being available in each and everybody’s constituency to spend on our constituents. I believe that on current pricing, it should be renamed 87m, because it is looking more like £87 million per constituency, but I will come to that later.
Thanks to the brilliant economic management of a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has rescued our economy, we have—it is no joke—a solid, long-term economic plan, which is providing the foundations for continuous growth. We need investment in infrastructure and public services, and economic stability against which our private sector can develop and our public services improve.
I hope my right hon. Friend will join me in congratulating the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has joined us in the Chamber and has created these excellent conditions. Will my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) join me in recognising that things will be very difficult for a number of colleagues in government when they face this project going ahead at great cost to their constituents, with cross-party support? It has a distinctly anti-democratic flavour at times.
I am proud of my colleagues who are in government—and should remain in government—who have spoken up and pointed out the failings of this project from within Government, as I did when I was part of the Government. I have had the good fortune of being liberated on the Back Benches, and am able to speak out freely in public. That is not always possible. However, I always observed Cabinet collective responsibility and only spoke on platforms in my constituency. I wish the same could be said of the Liberal Democrats, who seem to have cast Cabinet collective responsibility, and that sort of responsibility for being in government, to the wind. The politics of convenience are not my politics, so I am proud of the part that my colleagues have played. They have been stalwart compatriots in a very difficult subject area for all of us. None of us here is really naturally a rebel, and this is a difficult issue to grasp, as I hope people will appreciate.
By default, HS2 has been part of that long-term economic plan. As the doubts have been growing about it, I think we need to ask ourselves whether this is the best way forward for the honestly held ambitions of Conservatives for this country—or indeed, of any other party. There is only a small chance that the incoming Government will totally abandon the plans, and if they do, it may now only be because they are being held to ransom by a smaller party. Alex Salmond declared that one of his demands as the price for propping up a Labour Government would be to start the high-speed rail link from Scotland to England, before connecting Birmingham to London.
I like and admire many of my Labour colleagues. No prisoners are ever taken by them, and I am second to none in my admiration for the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who has trodden this path with me over five years, but surely even the Labour party, should it be successful, would not want that sort of political blackmail as the hallmark of its term in government.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will, but my next sentence is that I do not want a Labour, or Labour-led, Government.
I just say that if the Scottish National party is so keen, perhaps the Scottish Parliament could pay for it.
There is a lot of support for that on this side of the House. I do not want a Labour-led Government, and certainly not one that will be blackmailed by a smaller party. I want an incoming Conservative Government with a healthy majority to rethink, refine and re-engineer this project before we are locked into the most expensive Procrustean bed in history.
I turn to some of the detail and the increasing problems. On the current plans for HS2 phase 1, there is still no confirmed connection to central London. The Euston proposals have gone back to the drawing board and Old Oak Common just might be the final terminus. That will connect with nowhere meaningful for many years.
My right hon. Friend has been a good friend since 1992 and a doughty fighter on this particular campaign. On the point that she just made, is she also aware that many people in the midlands, while having to put up with HS2 crashing through their constituencies and countryside, were at least offered the chance of going to a railway station, say, in Birmingham in the morning and waking up in the afternoon in Paris or Lille? However, not only does it not connect with London in the way in which we thought, but it does not even connect with the channel tunnel.
That is absolutely correct. There is no direct connection to the channel tunnel, and people, particularly up in the north, have been sold a pup; they were told that they could get to Brussels or the continent much more easily, but that is not going to happen. Also, until we know the outcome of the Davies commission on airports, no connection to any future hub airport in the south-east will exist, and even the Heathrow link or spur has been cancelled. That might gladden the heart of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), for whom I have a great deal of sympathy, but the fact is that the project is being developed in isolation.
Does my right hon. Friend understand the disappointment at not having the regional high-speed trains through to the continent that were promised for Birmingham airport in my constituency? The concept was presented of clearing customs at Birmingham and being able to travel through to the continent, which is now not a possibility.
I know. So many people have been marched up the garden path and marched down again. It is appalling that such deception could have gone on for so long and then gradually fallen away, yet the project still survives as currently envisaged. HS2 has been developed in isolation, with no reference to any strategic and integrated transport plan for future passenger and freight transport across all modes of transport. That is confirmed in the House of Lords report released today.
To derive many of HS2’s claimed benefits, large investments will have to be made even to connect it to the cities that it is supposed to serve. As you well know, Mr Betts, that is the case in Sheffield. The capacity problems that it is supposed to cure have been challenged repeatedly, with Government insisting that we are already full to capacity on the west coast main line, despite their own figures showing differently. I refer to page 46 of “The Economics of High Speed 2”, the report released today, which shows that quite clearly.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for calling the debate. As a regular traveller on the west coast main line, I can confirm that outside peak hours, most trains have many carriages, particularly first-class carriages, that are almost empty. Despite the welcome reduction in first-class carriages on the Pendolinos from four to three, that is still too much capacity that is unused and completely wasted.
I know. A member of my team uses those trains, so I get regular reports and what I am hearing is not surprising. The House of Lords Committee finds the situation incredible, and so do I; and my hon. Friend has just confirmed the position to me, for which I am grateful. The business case has not been updated since 2013, and the cost-benefit analysis, now described by the Economic Affairs Committee as “unconvincing”, is based on an old, outdated set of facts and information.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because it seems to me that that goes to the heart of what this debate should be all about. I have some sympathy for the Government and, indeed, with the reasons that underpinned the launching of this project, because very often one can say that projects of this kind may be long term and one has to look beyond a basic economic case. However, the more it goes on, the more the evidence mounts up that there is in fact no economic case, yet we do not get a proper response.
The economic case was dodgy in the first place and has been challenged by many economists and outside commentators. One of the basic problems was that it was assumed that no one did any meaningful work on a train. That was extraordinary to me. The argument has been fraught with holes since the beginning. I think that even at the current estimate, the Treasury will not be impressed, and in the final analysis it will be the Treasury that holds the purse strings.
Is not the single argument, the single fact, that repeatedly holes the Government’s economic case for HS2 below the waterline that if there were a genuine business case for HS2, we would not need to put in £50 billion of taxpayers’ money, because the City of London would be more than happy to fund it?
The Government always go on about the Victorian railways, but they forget that it was private investors who built the Victorian railways. It will not be private investors that build HS2 or even HS3, as far as I can see. Also, the costings that are still being cited are at 2011 prices. The Department refused to update those figures for me or even for the Economic Affairs Committee in the other place, so the Economic Affairs Committee has recalculated the costs, using the movement in public sector construction contracts since 2011, and its new estimate is £56.6 billion at 2014 prices, because that is the year for which figures are available in order to make the calculation.
There is evidence that the Government did not give equal consideration to alternatives to HS2. The opportunity costs of spending £56.6 billion on one project have also escaped evaluation by the Government. As I said, 51m, so called because that is what each of us would have had to spend in our constituencies if HS2 had not gone ahead, should now be called 87m—£87 million for the constituency of each and every Member in this place. I am sure that if we gave that money to all our constituents, the first project that they came up with would not be HS2.
One thing that is noticeable to my constituents is that they live on an island and they have no benefit whatever from HS2.
I suppose I could say that they are lucky they have no disbenefit from HS2, but that is one of the pertinent points. This railway is being built for the few, certainly not the many.
Even the claims of rebalancing the economy between the north and the south do not stack up. There is clear evidence pointing to London being the real gainer from the project as currently configured, and we are all forgetting the ill fated KPMG report that revealed that many parts of the country would lose millions of pounds from their local economies, because those economies would be hollowed out as businesses were attracted, like a bee to a honeypot, to the line of route.
I am sad to say this to my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I consider to be a friend and of whom I am very fond, but—[Laughter.] There is always a “but” with me. This project has been guilty of unsatisfactory and often callous public engagement with the people and communities affected, disrespect for opposing viewpoints, including those of elected representatives, failure to observe the basic rules of consultation, often perceived indifference towards the environment, and suppression of the reports on the deliverability of and risks posed by the project.
That is not a great track record, if hon. Members will forgive the pun. I will certainly give way now that I have delivered my punchline.
My right hon. Friend is very kind and very generous; she knows me of old. Is it not interesting that one reason why the present Government decided not to go with the original Arup proposal and follow the route, which would have been much cheaper, of an existing transport corridor was that they wanted to go at ultra-high speed, and ultra-high speed trains need to travel in straight lines? However, because of the work of the Department for Transport and the ongoing work of the parliamentary Committee, which has caused a number of changes in the route, we now know that in fact the trains will not be able to go at ultra-high speed, because there are so many changes to the route. They could have followed an existing transport corridor, saving money and the environment.
That is a very valid point, but I have to say that, following the publication of a recent document, we know that HS2 will at least be well designed. The latest document from HS2 is “HS2 Design Vision”. It is not a very weighty document, but there is a long list of contributors, and I learn in it that we will be
“Celebrating the local within a coherent national narrative”.
“Each place and space that is created as part of the system will contribute to HS2’s own identity.
The design challenge will be to develop a coherent approach, establishing uniformity where it is essential while encouraging one-off expression based on local context where appropriate. HS2 seeks to enhance national and civic pride, while also supporting its own brand to support its operational and commercial objectives. It will therefore include many local design stories within one compelling national narrative.”
I am a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and an old marketing director, and that takes even my breath away. I have to say that it is not worth the paper it is written on. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is quite right. The design of the project is coming into question, because there were alternatives that have not, in my view, been properly considered. After six years of the project, since Andrew Adonis first announced it, we were supposed to have a fully integrated, connected railway smoothing northern access to the continent, whisking non-train-working businessmen along at speeds hitherto only dreamed of on a British railway and reducing air travel demand. We learn from recent press coverage that those passengers will be whisked along on luxury leather-upholstered seating in child and family-free carriages. The design vision has, for me, really put the icing on the cake. Is this really what people want? Certainly not the people who have contacted me, not only from my constituency but from up and down the country.
The list of detractors grows daily. In addition to the Lords report published today, we can count the Environmental Audit Committee, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Institute of Directors, and numerous local authorities and outside commentators. Last week, I wrote to the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility to ask him, as part of his remit to assess the long-term sustainability of the public finances, to carry out a review of the impact of HS2 on budgeted capital expenditure and Department for Transport expenditure. Should I be fortunate enough to be returned to the House by the electors of Chesham and Amersham after 7 May, I hope that I will receive a detailed response from Mr Chote that may enlighten us more.
Many detailed questions are posed in the Lords report, all of which need to be answered before the project goes any further. I think that the Minister should consider some specifics, particularly if he is willing to rethink the project. The rebalancing of wealth between north and south is an admirable objective. With a family who came from a steel firm in Sheffield, I know that better than most, as do you, Mr Betts. However, would it not yield faster and more effective results, as I have often said, if cross-Pennine connections were prioritised before any London-Birmingham link? Before starting on any link from Birmingham southwards, should we not wait for the Davies report on airport capacity in the south-east and plan accordingly? More importantly, should we not commission a major strategic transport plan across all modes of transport, with particular reference to the modern and emerging technologies of smart motorways, driverless cars, driverless trains, super-Maglev and vacuum tube trains, to say nothing of the increasing power and use of high-speed broadband and satellite communications, which were raised by the Prime Minister today in a tremendous Prime Minister’s Question Time?
We in the line of the route have always had to make other plans. We could not simply oppose the project; we had to make contingency plans in case it went ahead. In this day and age of politicians outbidding each other to be greener than green, how can we plan for HS2 to destroy parts of 41 ancient woods and damage a further 42 that lie near the construction boundary, to say nothing of the destruction of the area of outstanding natural beauty and the historic sites that lie in the path of the monster?
Convinced, if the project goes ahead, that the destruction of the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns can be avoided—and with my support, and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe—Chiltern district council, Buckinghamshire county council, the Chilterns conservation board and Aylesbury Vale district council commissioned a new, independent report to consider a better and viable alternative to the Government’s route through Buckinghamshire. The report will be published tomorrow and presented here, in Committee Room 19, at 4 o’clock, and I invite the Minister and other hon. Members to attend.
The main conclusion of that study is that a long tunnel for the transit of the Chilterns by HS2 is technically feasible and would protect the designated landscape of the Chilterns AONB and the green belt. The second conclusion is that that would offer a better alignment. The details have already been shared with HS2 Ltd to give it time to consider the study before the local authorities appear before the Select Committee, and I commend the report to the House. Accepting that option would save time and money, because such environmental protection would reduce the number of petitioners, lawyers’ fees and the time that people spend scrutinising the legislation. It would avoid some of the last-minute, knife-edge decisions that are being forced on people before they give evidence to the Select Committee. Giving evidence to a Select Committee is a daunting prospect even for a politician. It is really daunting for a layman who has an emotional investment in the proceedings, and who risks losing their home and habitat.
We should also question whether we should let HS2 Ltd continue to spend and enter long and expensive contracts when the project has not yet cleared all its parliamentary and political hurdles. The questions that I have had answered recently leave no doubt about the fact that HS2 Ltd is recruiting more and more people on higher and higher salaries. According to reports in the press, some 18 executives are paid more than the Prime Minister. I do not know whether that is true; I do not believe everything that I read in the press. However, it is alarming to think that such highly paid people are contracting on a regular basis—I have a list of the contracts—when they have not been given the clear say-so by this House or the other place.
I believe more than ever that a pause and a re-evaluation are necessary before the die is cast and we have no option but to plough ahead. I will conclude shortly, because I know that many other people want to speak. I hope that the Members who are allowed to speak will be those along the route who have a real interest in the matter because their constituencies will be particularly affected. I hope that the speakers will not simply be, as always seems to be the case, those who habitually support the project from afar. Before I conclude, I want to raise some compensation matters, because we have all had to make plans on the basis that the project would go ahead. As many hon. Members know, the lives, properties, businesses and futures of many of our constituents have been blighted by this project. They have lived through five years of sheer hell, or, as I have dubbed it, shire hell. Some—the lucky ones—have sold, and they have usually accepted offers of less than their properties are actually worth. Some have moved on. Some have had their health severely affected. Some have died. Some have taken the compensation on offer.
It was only this year, after five years, that the compensation for my constituents and “the need to sell” scheme were finally settled. People are still battling with complex bureaucracy, form-filling and unacceptable questioning. I have the distinct impression that lifestyle judgments are being made about people who apply for compensation. It should be none of the Department’s business what lifestyle anyone chooses to pursue. The decision should not really depend on what other assets they have, because it is the asset in question—usually their home—that is affected. The Department should accept the need to sell without making onerous demands for personal details.
I wholly endorse what my right hon. Friend is saying about the “need to sell” scheme. Do her constituents feel the frustration that is felt deeply in Ickenham and Harefield about the fact that the current compensation proposals take no account of blight associated with construction? When we are dealing with huge construction sites that will be in operation 24/7 for up to 10 years, that is a very real problem.
I agree entirely. I have been talking for too long. I was hoping to finish earlier than this, but I have been generous in giving way, so I have not been able to cover all the points that I hope others will cover. When I did the fly-through, which is a bird’s-eye view of the whole line of the route, it showed clearly what would happen after the line had been built, but it failed to take into account what would happen in the wider swathe of agony that would be cut through our countryside. That has to be explored in far more detail.
I hope that the Minister will confirm when he responds that absolutely no lifestyle judgments will be made, and that no such extra hurdles will be placed in front of people who are quite rightly applying for compensation. We have a residents’ commissioner, Deborah Fazan, who has sat since 2011 on the exceptional hardship scheme committee. I have tried to meet her twice, but she has resisted. She says that she needs to play in on the wicket, talk to HS2 and so on. I would have thought that she probably knows enough about it, having sat for so many years on the exceptional hardship scheme. She is supposed to be independent, and I hope the Minister will clarify her role because she is paid by HS2 Ltd and has not yet met me. I do not know how my residents access her or bring their points to her, and I certainly do not know how to access her, so will the Minister help? There is an old expression, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and I hope that her being paid through HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport does not compromise her independence. I have argued for an independent ombudsman, which should have been put in place and would have provided a better service.
HS2 has taken over many lives, and none more so than those of our colleagues who serve on the Select Committee. I praise the Committee’s work. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) and all members of the Committee have worked assiduously and, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), I am keen that the Committee’s recommendations are upheld. If there is an unsatisfactory response from HS2 Ltd to the Committee’s assurances and recommendations, they should be followed up, with the possibility of petitioners reappearing before the Committee, if necessary. I do not want the Minister to pass the buck to the Committee, because that is not correct. The Department for Transport should retain a deep and detailed involvement in all matters.
As I am thanking people, I want to mention the Clerk, Neil Caulfield, and all the officials of the House who work with him and have given sterling service to us all. Without doubt, it is a difficult job at the best of times, and it is a terrible job when dealing with people who are so anxious, angry, aggressive and upset and who feel threatened. Those officials have done a fantastic job in liaising and perhaps repairing some of the damage done during the early contact between officials and people in our constituencies.
My Conservative district council, Chiltern district council, and my Conservative county council, Buckinghamshire county council, have been absolutely superb. I want every Conservative district councillor who has stood shoulder to shoulder with me on this to be re-elected on 7 May, rather than those Johnny-come-latelies who suddenly decided, after their manifesto contained three high-speed rail plans, that they were against this one. We are not falling for that, I am afraid.
As many hon. Members know, I also want to thank HS2 Action Alliance, including Emma Crane—she has provided me with valuable and excellent legal advice—Hilary Wharf and Bruce Weston, who are well known to everyone here. I also thank the Chiltern Ridges Action Group, the Residents’ Environmental Protection Association and, particularly, the Woodland Trust, which I first worked with in 1992 to save Penn wood in my constituency. Penn wood was the first substantial woodland bought by the Woodland Trust, which has stood full square with us on the environmental case throughout. I thank Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside and the Chilterns Conservation Board. I particularly pay tribute to Steve Rodrick, who has just left the Chilterns Conservation Board, but I hope he will come back to give evidence to the Select Committee on our behalf. I also thank the Chiltern Society, the Wildlife Trusts and, particularly, the Country Land and Business Association, which helped on some complex matters.
I pay particular tribute to my parliamentary colleagues, starting with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras. He will be a great loss to this House. He may not be of my political persuasion, but I have found him easy to work with. He has not veered from a difficult path, and he has been a steadfast companion on this route. I, for one, wish him and his wife very well. I hope we will see him again. I hope that he will not completely depart these buildings and that he has a further contribution to make.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who, with the right hon. Member for Buckingham, has been the mainstay of trying to get some changes to this project. Having ministerial colleagues here today is important because it means they are as one with what is being said here and would like to see changes. I hope they will work again from inside the Government to get the changes to this project that we want—their working from outside the Government would serve no purpose whatever.
Any fool can spend money, and there is great appetite for what the Department proposes to spend on HS2, but as Conservatives we know that spending money wisely is what matters. On the penultimate day of this Parliament, in which the Conservative-led Government have shown that they have governed the country responsibly, restored our reputation for good governance and been the architect of our economic renaissance, will the Minister please listen to the many voices raised in good faith to question HS2? Will he not only fully publish all the information available to him but undertake a re-evaluation of the worth of this project? Saying, “We might not have got this absolutely right,” is the hardest thing to ask any Minister to do, but it would be the right thing to do before spending a king’s ransom on a white elephant.
Several hon. Members
Before I call the first speaker, I will set a time limit of four minutes. Hopefully, most people who have indicated that they want to speak will be able to do so.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this debate. In the short time available to me, I will focus on an issue of great concern to my constituents. The Hoo Green to Bamfurlong spur would be the whitest of white elephants. Building it would destroy two villages in my constituency, Culcheth and Hollins Green, and inflict serious environemtnal damage.
The case for the spur has now been seriously undermined. The spur results from a perverse decision to join the west coast main line north of Warrington, rather than north of Crewe. The original cost of the spur was estimated to be £800 million, which has now risen to £1 billion. HS2 justified that cost, as opposed to the £750 million original estimate for joining the west coast main line south of Warrington, on the grounds that it would otherwise have to do a great deal of work to Crewe station. That has now fallen apart because, after the Government accepted the recommendations of the Higgins report, Crewe will now be the main transport hub for the area.
There is no justification for not joining the main line near Crewe. The costings given for that were, to say the very least, dubious. The average cost works out at £22.9 million a kilometre. That sounds a lot, but it is only 28.6% of the cost of building the line elsewhere, which includes building a huge viaduct over the Manchester ship canal, bridges over the motorways and big embankments running through the village of Hollins Green. The costings simply do not stack up.
The second part of the case against the spur is the economic damage that would be caused to the villages of Hollins Green and Culcheth. The line would destroy a business park just outside Culcheth, with the loss of 500 jobs. The knock-on effect would mean that the village of Culcheth and all its businesses not only lose business from those people but lose outside trade because three of the four main routes into the village would be closed during construction, possibly causing many businesses to fold. Culcheth is a large village that relies on trade from outside coming into its shops and restaurants.
Similarly, a viaduct on Hollins Green would bisect the ancient parish of Rixton-with-Glazebrook and destroy businesses in the area, and the prospect has blighted homes, yet the Government cannot give us the figures. In other words, the economic case is being made without making the case for the damage caused to the economy elsewhere. Warrington will not benefit from this part of the line because it will not get a station. Nor is there a knock-on effect elsewhere in the constituency, which, as one gentleman said to me, might have justified what is happening. We have the pain, but we do not have the gain. In fact, we would probably end up with a worse service from Warrington than we have now, given that we already have one train an hour to London and one train an hour to Glasgow. We can get to London in just under two hours on a direct train.
I say to the Minister that the case does not stack up. The Government have not looked at the whole economic benefit, and they need to save £1 billion of public money by abandoning the spur.
My constituency has both the pain and the gain, having the first station outside London as the proposals stand.
I request again that the Minister look at a tunnel on the approach to the interchange station at Birmingham International airport. At present, a flyover will be needed over the west coast main line at the height of the tree line, which would be visually very intrusive in the village of Balsall Common. If a tunnel could be constructed under the existing airport terminus, there would be no need for an overhead railway, which would add significantly to the journey time of those coming from London to take an aircraft from the airport. A tunnel would leave the surface free of the rigidity of the railway tracks and, importantly, preserve some of the precious green belt around the villages in the Meriden gap.
Compensation for the construction works is important. Judging by the environmental statement, we shall be a building site for the next five years, but there is no compensation scheme for the construction works. The scheme relates to the tracks, but many of my constituents will be severely affected by the construction works, as will country lanes around villages in the area, including Diddington lane and Kelsey lane. Currently, however, there is no help with that.
Hon. Members who have used the M40 will know that junction 6 is a nightmare because of the combination of the airport, the national exhibition centre and the west coast main line. Just making some improvements to the junction will not be enough when we have a high-speed rail interchange. A two-junction solution is required. I urge the Minister to reject proposals for a motorway service area south of junction 6 to go ahead before the development of High Speed 2. If an interchange station is built north of the junction, it is obvious that the motorway service area should be incorporated there.
I could not deal with this subject without touching on the opportunity to do really good biodiversity offsetting. It is not good enough to plant a few trees along the track. As the Country Land and Business Association says, that is a poor solution for some of the best and most valued farmland. I recommend that the Minister look at the proposal from Birmingham university and Arup to significantly regenerate the Tame river valley in east Birmingham and the Blythe and Cole valleys in my constituency, in line with the Government’s natural environment White Paper and using the national ecosystem assessment and the work of the Natural Capital Committee. Then, at least, we would have a lasting legacy at landscape scale, which we would be able to tell our constituents was providing proper protection for the environment.
I particularly wanted to commend the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), who is leaving the House. She travelled to Brussels with me the other day to visit the environment directorate-general to look at what more we could do to protect the environment. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend would venture an opinion at this stage, but I think it is important that we look at perhaps declaring the Chilterns a Natura 2000 site.
I also commend the work of the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, as well as the Committee’s work in highlighting the weaknesses in the environmental compensation and in the analysis of HS2’s environmental impact. That has highlighted the opportunity we have to do things such as create Natura 2000 sites in some of the worst-affected places. We can never replace ancient woodland—that is a given—but we can calculate the value of our natural capital and do something sufficiently ambitious to compensate for its loss, even if the regeneration and restoration take some time.
I would like to finish by commending the work of the parish councils and residents’ associations in my constituency on the action they have taken to highlight the project’s impact on them—as I said, we have the pain and the gain. I also commend the work of Solihull council in drawing the Government’s attention to the need to rework the cost-benefit analysis of the tunnel from Berkswell to Birmingham International airport so that it takes full account of what could be achieved not only to benefit the environment and the community but to improve transport access and, therefore, to achieve a better outcome.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for her kind remarks about our co-operation and for thanking the various bodies concerned.
Today’s report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee batters great lumps out of the case for HS2. The Committee did not ask any questions that we have not been asking for the last five years. HS2 had no satisfactory answers before, and it apparently still has none.
I want to draw attention to the situation in my constituency, which is the most affected by the proposals. The proposals involve the demolition of the homes of about 500 people and would leave about 5,000 people living next to Europe’s biggest building site for the best part of 15 years.
Under the original proposals, HS2 was going to knock down Euston station and rebuild it, incorporating a further 75 metres to the west to provide space for everything, including the new high-speed line. Originally, that was going to cost £1.2 billion. Eight months later, a revised estimate of £2 billion was put forward—the figure had gone up by just £100 million a month. Apparently, £2 billion was too much, so the scheme was cut back, which would have given us a rather elegant lean-to shed for HS2 at the west side of Euston station, at a cost of £1.4 billion. That is what was in the Bill that came to the House of Commons. By the time it got here, however, we were told that that was not going to be done any more and that we would go back to the vast new scheme. The detailed proposals for that scheme were supposed to be available in October last year. Recently, in meetings with local people, however, HS2 has admitted that it has no such proposals and that it is going back to the lean-to shed version, which will now cost £2.6 billion. Who would put £50 billion on a racing stable that produces rubbish like this?
We were told that a supposed connection to the channel tunnel link would bring all sorts of benefits: people would be able to get on a train in Manchester and go to Paris. We told HS2 that that was not a workable proposition, and even the Institution of Civil Engineers said it was not, but no, HS2 persisted—and then the connection was abandoned. One explanation was that HS2 had come across “unforeseen factors”, including the need to “widen the route”. Now, anybody who starts an engineering project without realising that they will need to widen the route if they add some lines really is not fit to be put in charge of spending £50 billion.
Is my right hon. Friend—I will call him that—aware that the completion of Birmingham New Street, including a new department store, has been delayed by a year and a half because of construction problems? Who is doing the project? The selfsame people who are supposed to be designing the new Euston HS2 terminal.
I should add, Mr Betts, that the people who have been making those preposterous estimates, coming up with ludicrous proposals that will not work, are all very well-rewarded consultants. I believe that they have already had three quarters of a billion pounds in fees, so hard-working consultants are doing rather well. As far as I can see, the only train that has actually moved is the consultancy gravy train.
I advise people that if we want to benefit the cities of the north, the answer is to invest in the cities of the north and their immediate transport requirements, rather than spending what it is now believed will be £7 billion on a full-scale development of Euston. Will Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester benefit from an investment of £7 billion in Euston? Euston certainly will not benefit, and I do not think anywhere else will.
On a point of order, Mr Betts. Would it be possible at this point, as this is possibly my right hon. Friend’s last speech in the House, to record our appreciation of his service over many years, particularly to his constituents, and his devoted service to the national health service, from which we have all benefited?
Of course, that is not a point of order for the Chair, but the Chair’s inability to comment on it should not be taken as disagreement with it.
This will be my last speech in Westminster Hall, but I hope to catch Mr Speaker’s eye tomorrow for a final time. It is fitting that my speech today should be about HS2, because it has been a core matter for many of my constituents and other Hillingdon residents for the past few years. We have experience in my constituency of another great project going through—Crossrail. We have not really had any confrontation or controversy on that, because it brings obvious benefits to the people involved.
To refer back to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), I want to mention that the Select Committee’s work is exemplary. It has been sorting out problems and has been helpful to petitioners; but it has been given a difficult task. I do not want to dwell on constituency points; I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) will have an opportunity to talk about them. I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham about the process being undemocratic, because we have had a vote in the House. The problem is that only those of us who will be affected by the project have looked into it in detail and realise why it is so flawed. There are exceptions, but many other people have not had that benefit, and do not have to look at the issue. If we could get that message out to more people, more of them would realise that it is a waste of money.
I shall miss my right hon. Friend in the House. He has made a fantastic contribution and has been a good friend on HS2. I was talking to his potential successor and exchanging views on HS2. The view is that, as with Crossrail, ’twas best put underground totally, across the piece; then there would be a lot less disruption and perhaps it would attract more love and affection, like Crossrail. May I also say that I did not say the process was undemocratic; I just said that the Bill has not gone through all its stages in the two Houses, and it is unwise to extend contracts before we have completed our scrutiny.
My right hon. Friend alluded to my putative successor—if the electorate are so inclined. I have had conversations with him, and although Mr Boris Johnson is a shy and retiring fellow he is keen to take up the cudgels on behalf of my constituents and Hillingdon residents, on fair compensation, tunnelling and many other things. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, who has been tireless in his work on HS2. It is a great shame that I will not be working with him any more in this place. However, I expect to be on the front line with my placard, as a latter-day Swampy.
The House of Lords report sums things up well:
“The cost-benefit analysis for HS2 relies on evidence that is out-of-date and unconvincing. The Government needs to provide fresh, compelling evidence that HS2 will deliver the benefits it claims.”
The Government must make the case, if they are so convinced, and give the evidence for it. Finally, as I have been encouraging the Government to dig tunnels in my constituency, and have had some success, I caution them not to dig a hole for themselves.
I believe that the case for HS2 is so overwhelming that it is not a question of why we are doing it, but why we are not doing it quicker, although I realise that people would not get that impression from the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on obtaining the debate. She is a doughty fighter for her constituents, and no doubt had she achieved her ambition to represent Manchester she would have been just as doughty a fighter for HS2 as she is against it now.
Reading the report of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and listening to the debate have made it clear to me why this country is so appallingly bad at major infrastructure projects. How many new arterial routes have we had in this country in the past 40 years? The answer is one—leaving the country, as part of an international treaty: HS1. The real reason we need HS2, going both west and east of the country as it gets further north, is that the motorway system is clogged. The M1 and M6 are congested a great deal of the time. The west and east coast railways are often congested and are reaching their limits. There is not enough capacity on the rail system for freight. HS2, with the investment of possibly £50 billion, will free up capacity on all those systems. People say that alternatives have not been looked at, but do they believe that there is any possibility that we will build new motorways west and east of this country? There is simply no chance. HS2 is the only way to free up that capacity.
Certainly some things can be improved in this country. It is interesting, in terms of both cost and speed, that on the high-speed route from Tours to Bordeaux the civil engineering work on 200 km of line was achieved—started and finished—in two years. There is a lot we can learn, to lower the cost and improve the speed of what we do. The arguments are big.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given that London is the finest city in the world, or certainly in Europe, its gravitational pull—its social, economic and cultural traction—means that the faster people can get there, the quicker they will do so? It will just draw in talent and money from the regions. The big beneficiary of HS2, if it goes ahead, will be London.
The Transport Committee is in favour of HS2 and has not been quoted. The experience from French cities is that it depends on how much effort a city makes. I expect that the creativity of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield will produce an experience much like that of Lille, where there has been real economic benefit.
I want to support the hon. Gentleman’s point. The history of Japan presents a salient experience. Far from producing a gravitational pull to the centre, what it has done is create a gravitational pull to where the high-speed rail has been built, on parkway stations.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will finish with two quick points. Hon. Members have said that we should focus on east-west links in the north of the country, but actually it is much more likely—this is already happening—that we will get those links if we have a strong north-south link.
Finally, people have quoted the cost-benefit analysis, but the House of Lords Committee did not look at its own evidence well. Professor Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford, said:
“A moment’s reflection indicates how weak such techniques are when it comes to deciding how much infrastructure to provide. For infrastructure typically comes in systems, not discrete bits. Choosing what sort and level of infrastructure to supply is not a marginal decision. It is often about one system or another. Marginal analysis—as the core of cost-benefit analysis—has little obvious to offer.”
High Speed 2 has a great deal to offer to both the north and the south of the country.
Order. For all the speakers before the Front-Bench Members come in, I will have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. I am sorry.
Thank you, Mr Betts. I shall be as brief as I can. I have always recognised that infrastructure projects come at environmental cost. They cannot be done without that. My constituency has had the M4, the M25 and the M40 built through it, which has caused a lot of environmental damage, but ultimately, those roads are appreciated and used.
I also recognise that the fact that my own constituents may not directly benefit is not an argument for saying that the cost to build HS2 should not fall on them. However, the point that I have always been worried about is that the project is highly speculative. I have always given my colleagues in Government the benefit of the doubt. To work out a precise economic case is difficult and perhaps in 40 years’ time people might turn around and say, “This was an inspired choice.” However, I would have expected that, as the project proceeded, a greater volume of evidence would have emerged to support the Government’s economic case, yet the very contrary is the case.
Every passing month sees a new report come out that casts doubt on out-of-date figures and, indeed, on the basic premises on which the project is based. That troubles me very much. I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government will do to counter that argument, because that is what got them through Second Reading. Without that answer, it seems that their case is undermined.
I will turn to the detail. When the project was proposed, quite astonishingly the Colne valley, which lies in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) was described as an area of “dug gravel pits.” In fact, it is an essential amenity that is used by hundreds of thousands of people on the edge of London for recreational purposes. It includes: a number of sites of special scientific interest; wonderful water parks; leisure facilities; river walks; otters in the river; and just about everything that could possibly be wanted in terms of biodiversity within 15 miles of the centre of London.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that when the gravel pits were once mentioned in a discussion, I pointed out that in fact the Norfolk broads were man-made as well? Nobody would dispute that they are worth keeping.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, they are similar to the Norfolk broads in terms of recreational amenity.
I was told at the start of the project that it would never be possible or economically viable to tunnel under the River Colne because that would cost in the region of £1 billion more than a viaduct—I remember that figure being given. By last month, we were told that, because the viaduct will cost so much, the true differential is a mere £185 million. In the great scheme of the £50 billion- plus we are talking about for this project, that seems to be something that the Government really ought to consider, given the damage to the environment not just for the local community and residents but for all the other people who come to make use of this recreational area. That same point could be made about the tunnel under the area of outstanding natural beauty, but I will focus on the Colne valley because of its importance not just to the local community but to the residents.
I am very grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the Heathrow spur would effectively not go ahead. That removes a great deal of potential blight from my constituency and it is quite clear that it was not needed. However, parts of the bits of the junctions and other infrastructure still remain in the Bill, which worries me about the potential for blight. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that the necessary steps will be taken to ensure that such potential for blight is removed from the Bill.
I give my right hon. and learned Friend that reassurance now.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. That will be well received in my constituency.
Finally, we have heard a lot about compensation. The package has changed and been improved, but I still find something very odd about a situation in which we have a need-to-sell basis for getting a full market value for compensation for those people living outside the immediate areas close to the track, yet if they do not go through the paraphernalia of need to sell—I suspect that some cases will be done, I am afraid, by requests that may have a sleight of hand—they will not be adequately compensated. That cannot be right. I know the origin of the compensation system in this country, but it is antiquated and it is time that we moved away from it. We are actually forcing people to move, because otherwise they will not get the compensation that they need.
With those points in mind, I look forward to the Minister’s response. However, I come back to my original point. The Government really will have to counter the growing volume of evidence that the project has serious flaws in its concept.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I have spoken on HS2 on previous occasions in the House and I remain of the view—in fact, it has got stronger—that is wholly unnecessary and ridiculously expensive. The figure of £50 billion is talked about quite a bit, but Hansard on 5 March shows that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) drew attention to evidence presented to the HS2 Committee that
“hidden costs will raise the overall cost of the HS2…to £138 billion”. —[Official Report, 5 March 2015; Vol. 593, c. 1062.]
That is a massively higher figure. My contacts in the industry suggest that that figure is perfectly justifiable and some say that the real figure would be even more.
Even if things are expensive, I would still support them if they are the right thing to do, but this project is not. I made a written submission to the House of Lords Committee to set out my views in more detail, which is available on the internet. I have spoken on them before, but let us get the first nonsense of HS2 out of the way first of all: that must be Euston. It is the wrong station in the wrong place. The last place that a business traveller from Birmingham or whatever who wants to get to the City or Canary Wharf wants to arrive is Euston. They would want to get to somewhere linked on to Crossrail to get through to those places, and not have to struggle with their laptop and wheelie case from Euston on to the tube and then the docklands light railway to get to Canary Wharf. That is a nonsense.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Is he also aware that a business traveller from the Birmingham area first has to get to Birmingham New Street and then, with all their baggage, has to walk across Birmingham to get to Curzon Street station, only to end up at the wrong station—Euston? As I said earlier on, any hope of getting directly to France has now evaporated.
I am not yet a Privy Counsellor and I do not suppose that I ever will be, but the hon. Gentleman’s point about Curzon Street was absolutely right; I was coming to it myself. In my submission to the House of Lords Committee, which was titled, “Sensible alternatives to HS2”, I gave three specific alternatives that would cost a fraction of that amount but solve all the problems that HS2 might supposedly solve.
First, I suggested the electrification of the Birmingham Snow Hill line, via Banbury, to London. It currently goes to Marylebone or Paddington, but it could easily be linked—the tracks are already there, so all it needs is a bit of track work—to Crossrail going in both directions. If we had an electric train from Snow Hill in the middle of the Birmingham business district that went direct to Canary Wharf at 125 mph, someone could work on a laptop without changing trains and I bet that train would beat HS2 if otherwise that person had to get to Curzon Street and then get two tube trains at the London end. HS2 is a complete and total nonsense, but that suggestion would provide wonderful extra capacity.
That would also allow travel direct to Heathrow from the centre of Birmingham and it could be linked through from Leamington Spa on to the west coast main line, so we could have Birmingham airport linked to Heathrow airport with a direct, 125 mph, one-hour service. They could almost be hubs or satellites for each other. There could be trains from further north—from Manchester—coming down the west coast main line, joining the Banbury line and going directly from the centre of Manchester to Heathrow or Canary Wharf. It is possible for a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the benefits that the alternatives to HS2 would bring to other parts of the country that probably explain why there is a majority against HS2 in every region of this country, according to the opinion polls, even in the north-west, where people are most enthusiastic about it? Even there, the divide is 43% to 39%.
My right hon. Friend has spoken wisely, as always.
Will the hon. Gentleman bring his remarks to a conclusion, please, so the Front-Bench spokesmen can respond?
My second alternative to HS2 is to upgrade the east coast main line. It needs to be four-tracked at Welwyn with an extra viaduct, a flyover at Peterborough, a flyover at Newark and four-tracking in various places, so that there can be non-stop services from King’s Cross to Edinburgh in three and a half hours, which was done on a test run in 1990; indeed, that test run was slightly faster than is being proposed with HS2. [Interruption.] Not a problem.
Finally I will propose what I have proposed before, which is the GB Freight Route. That is a dedicated rail freight line, to carry lorries on trains from the channel tunnel to every major region of Britain, using old trackbed and under-utilised lines, without causing any environmental or planning problems. The details are included in my paper here, which I have submitted to others from time to time.
Those three alternatives together would cost a tiny fraction of what it is proposed HS2 will cost and would be infinitely more useful. Indeed, the freight line would pay for itself.
I will leave my case there. I would love to speak for longer; I can speak for another two hours unaided, if you wish, Mr Betts, but I have probably said enough.
I will not aid the hon. Gentleman in that course.
I ask the hon. Gentleman—Nick Hurd—just to keep his remarks to two minutes. I am sorry, but the Minister needs to have time to reply to the debate.
I shall do my very best, Mr Betts.
I wholly endorse the view that we need more evidence and less assertion when considering the case for HS2. Like others, I come to bury HS2, not to praise it. My personal opposition to the current HS2 plans is based absolutely on the impact that HS2 will have on my constituency. The Minister is well aware of that impact. He is a good man. He has been good enough to come and see for himself that the disruption to thousands of residents in Ickenham, Harefield and west Ruislip will be immense, and these are places where people choose to live because of their relative tranquillity and semi-rural nature. There are no direct benefits to the area from HS2, and yet the future we are being asked to accept is one of major construction sites for 10 years, unbearable increases in the movement of heavy goods vehicles on key artery roads that are already clogged, huge soil dumps, a viaduct across the stunning Colne valley, electricity feeder stations, and the risk of losing Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre, which is known locally as HOAC and which is a superb facility enjoyed by 20,000 young people a year.
I could go on, but beneath those headlines is a dense thicket of problems, concerns and unanswered questions, and HS2 still does not have an answer to some of the biggest problems. The future of HOAC remains uncertain, as all relocation options are complicated. As for the chronic problem of traffic on Harefield road and access to the A40, we are just told that something will be worked out with the council at a future date. It is not good enough.
There is a solution and it is the “t” word. I began arguing for a tunnel extension back in 2012, alongside my right hon. Friends and neighbours: my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall); we will miss my good friend, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, dreadfully. Hillingdon council, residents and MPs are now all working alongside each other to make the case for a tunnel extension.
HS2 is unwilling to assess the viability of such an extension. Hillingdon council has produced a report that shows it is technically feasible and can be done for more or less the same price as other projects. This is my ask of the Minister: can we please pressure HS2 to give this report a serious response, which gives us a detailed breakdown of its costs for the viaduct and its estimate of the Hillingdon costs, so that the Transport Committee and the public can have a view on two reports and the case for extending the tunnel across the Colne valley, which would solve so many of the problems in my area? We must literally bury HS2 and protect the area, and if we do not, I am afraid that I cannot support HS2 in the future.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing the debate. She has been a doughty opponent of High Speed 2 throughout this Parliament, and while we have found ourselves on opposite sides of that argument, the tone of these debates has been constructive. I hope to continue in that spirit today.
HS2 has been improved through this House’s scrutiny, and I am sure that process will continue after the election. I speak in this debate in support of HS2. The project was first announced under the last Labour Government, and, if anything, the case for HS2 has grown stronger since then. Record passenger growth has continued. Data from the Office of Rail Regulation have recently shown that there were 430 million journeys between October and December last year, an increase of almost 7% compared with the same quarter in 2013. That growth has continued through periods of disruption and even through a recession.
As a consequence, the railways are reaching the limits of their capacity, and nowhere is that more keenly felt than on the west coast main line, the busiest and perhaps the most complex mixed-use line in Europe. Network Rail has warned that its capacity will be exhausted by 2024, and as demand continues to grow, that day of reckoning could come even sooner.
We cannot forget the money that has already been invested in the line, whether for electrification, the ingenuity of tilting trains or the ill-fated and hugely disruptive £9 billion modernisation programme of recent years. Just a few years on, we have already exhausted all the additional capacity that that investment brought us and we are still no nearer to achieving speeds above 125 mph than we were 50 years ago, when British Rail started to plan the advanced passenger train. Once the Norton Bridge area works are completed, the scope for further infrastructure improvements is limited.
The consequences are simple: we cannot continue to force every grade of traffic to compete for scarce paths without impairing passenger services. We have only to look at the 2008 timetable changes, which enabled more fast trains to London at the expense of commuter services in the west midlands, to see that. I have visited places south of Stoke where services were withdrawn during the modernisation programme, and residents have been told that the stations cannot be reopened because paths have been reassigned. Although those capacity constraints are most acute on the west coast main line, they are also felt on other trunk routes, including the midland main line and the east coast main line.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way because I have very limited time; I am sorry.
It is sometimes said that we should just upgrade what we have, and of course we need to invest in the existing network, but the delayed and over-budget Great Western works are showing just how difficult such upgrading can be in practice. Opponents of HS2 are rightly concerned about costs and it is vital that taxpayers get the best value for their investment, so it should be a great concern to us all that the estimated cost of electrifying the Great Western main line has more than trebled, from £540 million in 2011 to more than £1.7 billion today, and the price is still rising. As Lord Adonis has said, it is like performing open heart surgery on a Victorian railway. Let there be no mistake: tracks may have been relayed and signals may have been upgraded since the Victorian railways were put down, but almost all our alignments are inherited from an age of slower traction, and almost 200 years later they have given us compromises.
It may be asked, “What is the alternative to HS2?” The truth is that the alternative, if it can be called that, is to prioritise the needs of one passenger against another. It is to make fast trains compete with commuter and freight services, and to spend even greater sums to extract diminishing returns from our eccentric and increasingly sclerotic network. To my mind, that is no alternative at all. It would lead to a meaner, less socially accessible and more London-centric railway. We urgently need new capacity and HS2 is the right project to provide it.
A number of concerns have been raised, both outside and inside this House. Much has been said about the project’s costs and it is certainly true that there was a loss of focus on costs after the election. That is why Labour successfully amended the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013 to enforce a much tougher scrutiny regime around the project’s budget. I will add that after the investment in High Speed 1, in Crossrail, in Thameslink and in Reading station, HS2 is a welcome commitment to building world-class infrastructure in the midlands and the north, and not just in London and the south-east.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way, because I have such limited time and I want the Minister to be able to respond to points.
We cannot and should not ignore environmental concerns, and I am grateful for the briefings and constructive dialogue that I have had with groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Woodland Trust. Unlike the current Mayor of London, we do not dismiss legitimate environmental concerns raised by people who live along the proposed route of HS2, and we want the environmental benefits of HS2 to be enhanced through an early commitment to decarbonising the electricity market. We also want to ensure that the concerns of community groups are looked at, and that disruption is mitigated wherever possible.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am so sorry, but I am not going to; there is limited time.
We need to make sure that we get the route right. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will want to record their gratitude to our colleagues who sit on the phase 1 hybrid Bill Committee, who have approached their task in a spirit of fairness and determination. As the right hon. Lady said, we thank the Clerk, Neil Caulfield, and the other staff who support the Committee.
It has been said before that if HS2 is about capacity south of Birmingham, it is also about connectivity north of it. The reality is that many of our cities have relatively good links to London, but poor links to each other. For example, travelling from Nottingham to Leeds can take more than two hours at present, but with HS2 it could take as little as 40 minutes. Across the country, HS2 holds enormous potential to reinvent the quality of our connections between Birmingham and Manchester, the west and east midlands, the midlands and Yorkshire, and beyond, as high speed services run on to other lines. We will achieve those aims only if HS2 is planned as a fully integrated component of our existing network. I hope that that objective will be vigorously pursued in the next Parliament.
It has been a true honour and a privilege to serve in the shadow Transport team. HS2 is an important part of the brief and I am glad to have had the opportunity to make what I hope is a final contribution only in this Parliament in support of this essential project.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this debate on HS2, a scheme that affects a number of constituencies on its line of route, not least Kenilworth and Southam. I note that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) is in the Chamber.
I am tempted to go as far as to endorse everything that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said. Certainly, a project of this type, which is going to be constructed over a number of years, needs wide political support across the spectrum. Therefore it is good news that we have such a lot of agreement on it.
Of course, there has been considerable interest in HS2 throughout the country. When the scheme was last debated in Parliament, on Second Reading in April 2014, the support for it was clear: 452 votes in favour to 41 against. It is patently obvious that, with the west coast main line reaching capacity, something needed to be done. It is no good saying to those using this service that they must grin and bear it while we do nothing, watching our infrastructure grind to a halt and stifling economic growth.
Comments have been made about the report published yesterday by the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee. Although I have enormous respect for our colleagues in the other place, I most heartily disagree with their report. The case for HS2 is crystal clear. It will have a transformational effect, supporting growth in the north by improving connectivity, freeing up space on our crowded rail network, promoting regeneration, boosting local skills, generating tens of thousands of jobs and helping secure the UK’s future prosperity.
Will the Minister give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am not going to give way. I have so many points to cover in a short time.
It is a vital part of the Government’s long-term economic plan, strongly supported by the northern and midlands cities, alongside our plans for better east-west rail links confirmed in the northern transport strategy last week.
We have been fully transparent about the project. HS2 will deliver more than £2 of benefits for every £1 invested, and the economic benefit of the project is clear. The strong support of MPs is shared by—
Will the Minister give way?
Not at this time.
He should give way to me.
I will give way this once.
I am grateful to the Minister. However, I do not know how he can say, “We have been fully transparent about the project”, when he has not published any of the Major Projects Authority’s reports and we cannot get up-to-date figures on the project.
My right hon. Friend has tabled 355 parliamentary questions for the Department on HS2—
Good, I am doing my job.
And we have given her comprehensive replies to those questions. The report that she refers to is, of course, an historical report that is out of date. We are working on much more up-to-date information.
There is strong support from the Transport Committee, which backs the strategic business case and is confident that HS2 is the only practical way significantly to increase rail capacity. Indeed, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is a member of that Committee. One of its conclusions in a previous report states:
“Having reviewed the revised business case for HS2 and the KPMG report on regional economic benefits we remain convinced that the project is justified. Capacity constraints on the West Coast Main Line cannot be ignored and nor should demand be controlled by pricing people off the railway. Alternatives to building a new line will themselves be costly and disruptive and their benefits could be relatively short-lived if demand continues…as forecast. Only a new line can bring the step change in capacity which is required.”
The Committee agrees with the Government and the Opposition.
Demand for long distance rail travel has doubled in the past 15 years and without HS2 key rail routes connecting London, the midlands and the north will soon be overwhelmed, stifling growth in towns and cities across the country. There is also latent demand for more rail freight, for which no paths are currently available on the west coast main line. It is crucial that we press ahead with delivering HS2 on time and budget. We remain on track to start construction in 2017.
The Bill is now before the hybrid Bill Committee, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), which has already heard petitions relating to about half the route of phase 1. In the nine months it has sat, it has heard almost twice as many petitions as the Committee on Crossrail heard in its 21 months of sitting. Clearly, there are many petitions yet to hear, but I am sure the whole House would want to thank my hon. Friend and his Committee for the seriousness and diligence with which they have gone about their important role of ensuring that the project strikes the right balance between being sensitive to the needs of affected communities and the environment, and the long-term needs of the country as a whole.
Of course, the scheme has undergone particular scrutiny in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. I take this opportunity to thank her for so assiduously ensuring that her constituents’ voices are heard. I note how much she has achieved, including helping to move the line of the route further south through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty in 2011, to avoid an aquifer, and extending the tunnel in her constituency. The scheme now boasts over 13 km of tunnel under the Chilterns. Indeed, of the overall kilometerage in the Chiltern area—there is 20.8 km of line there—46% is in bored tunnel, 12% in green tunnel and 28% in cutting. Therefore 86% of the route in the AONB is below ground level or in a tunnel. I think my right hon. Friend has made a tremendous contribution to achieving that for her constituents. This demonstrates both the Government’s commitment to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty and the hard work of my right hon. Friend. This is an example of how passionate she has been in working hard for her constituents.
I will deal with some questions raised. I will not be able to respond to them all, so I will write to the hon. and right hon. Members I cannot reach. Hon. Members mentioned the independence of the residents’ commissioner and the residents’ charter. The commissioner will report findings directly to Sir David Higgins and will not be part of the standard staff structure. The direct link and the publication of the commissioner’s quarterly report will ensure that concerns and issues can be aired and addressed in a timely manner. The residents’ charter and residents’ commissioner’s report will be transparent. That transparency provides the best guarantee of independence.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) raised a valid question about the phase 2 spur. We are currently reviewing and assessing those decisions. No decisions have been taken yet on either Crewe or the spur.
Will the Minister give way?
I only have two minutes to go, so I really must come to a close.
I shall briefly talk about the economic impact and the fact that we are not taking money away from other infrastructure investment. We are investing £73 billion in transport from 2015-16 to 2020-21 and £57 billion in other projects.
In terms of the economic case, I draw the House’s attention to a report in The Times today, which states that HSBC—I do not think it is our favourite bank at the moment—is going to relocate 1,000 workers to Birmingham:
“The bank already has three sites there employing 2,500 people, and some of those will move to the new building that it has its eyes on, not yet erected, on a site near Centenary Square in the city centre.”
The article mentions the
“ever improving transport links”
“including the planned HS2 fast trains bolstering a road-rail network crowned by Spaghetti Junction on the M6”,
which it states has added to its appeal. So this is already having an effect on encouraging employers to come to the area.
In conclusion, HS2 is about helping Britain to thrive and prosper. Although tough decisions have to be taken, they will be responsible decisions in the interest of making a better, stronger Britain. We understand that a scheme of this magnitude cannot be built without having some effects on the environment or communities, but as I have set out here today, we are going to great lengths to ensure that the impacts are mitigated wherever practical, particularly in areas with ancient woodland. I repeat our pledge that there will be no net environmental loss. We will make sure that this is done in the most sustainable way for any major infrastructure ever built.