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HS2 Phase 2: Consultation

Volume 617: debated on Thursday 24 November 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julian Smith.)

I want to make clear, on behalf of my constituents, my very strong objection to the proposals in section 4 of the document entitled, “HS2 Phase 2a: West Midlands to Crewe design refinement consultation”. I have already registered my objections to HS2 on many, many occasions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) have also taken a very strong line on this whole subject for a very long time. There will be a Bill, presumably after December. At some point, there will be a hybrid Bill, on which my constituents will be able to petition if they need to do so.

I want to set out my objections to these initial proposals. They amount to a railhead at Yarnfield, in between the proposed HS2 route and the M6, which is likely to become, we believe, a permanent maintenance facility to replace the infrastructure maintenance depot at Crewe. Stone Town Council has said in its objections that it is extremely disappointed with the level of consultation of Stone residents. That does not really fit in with the Minister’s saying in the previous debate, in which I took part with my right hon. and hon. Friends, that he was absolutely determined that consultation would be at the very highest level. I have to say that my constituents do not believe that that has been effective in this particular case, and I ask him to look into that.

I recently held a public meeting with my constituents in Yarnfield village hall, and the depth of frustration and anger at the proposals, which have caused extreme anxiety in the local area, was evident to all, as in a meeting with local residents that I had on the same day in Baldwins Gate, further to the north. I will hold a further public meeting on 3 December in Walton community centre.

The Yarnfield railhead sliver is totally new in the September 2016 consultation. The railhead was meant to have been in Crewe, and this is a shock to all my constituents in the towns of Stone and Eccleshall, and all the villages in and around the area, particularly Yarnfield. This is not a conceptual design, as the others have been; it is a detailed design that required much more time for consultation of the affected people. HS2’s standard consultation process was therefore hopelessly inadequate. Why did HS2 identify the Yarnfield area as appropriate instead of Crewe?

My constituents have raised an important issue in relation to the options appraisal in the community area report for my constituency. It contained eight options, but four were not taken forward. A brief commentary is provided with regard to only one of the four rejected options, which is Madeley. Of the remaining three, one is not related to Stone—option 5, for Crewe—and this is described in one section as the preferred environmental option. Of the three remaining Stone options, option 8—the Stone hybrid, now selected by HS2—seems to be a combination of options 2 and 3, but we have had only a very limited amount of time to consider all this. We believe that there has been misinformation about the number of jobs and a lack of evidence to demonstrate that there was availability in Crewe. This seems to have been overridden, and we do not understand why it has happened.

With regard to the railhead south of Crewe at the northern end of the phase 2a route, the consultation paper does not explain why Yarnfield must be chosen, nor why the so-called design development work would lead to the identification of Yarnfield as appropriate. The reason to move the location from Crewe to Yarnfield cannot be that Crewe is now to have 370 new homes, some of which have already been built. That would be baffling, because the site at Yarnfield is even more inappropriate given the positioning of local residential buildings.

The disruption that has already been caused by HS2 project preparation throughout my constituency, including Stone and Swynnerton, on top of the ongoing works at Norton Bridge that have been shattering the local area and having a great impact on nearby residents, has been excessive. Therefore, the attempt to minimise disruption in Crewe only to maximise it in Yarnfield does not seem, by any means, to be a good idea or a sensible option.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need better communications with HS2? It has started to do the exploratory groundworks in my constituency, but it failed to get the correct permissions in Chalfont St Giles and since then a lorry has had an accident there. I think that we as MPs need a hotline to HS2 and to the Department, so that we can report some of the aggravation that is going down in our constituencies. If it is already happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency, all I can say is that I have a great deal of sympathy, because it is certainly happening in mine.

I am extremely grateful to, and concur with, my right hon. Friend. Accidents have occurred and I think that a hotline is an extremely good idea. I hope that the Minister is listening.

An analysis of the population of Yarnfield and the Stone area shows that over-65-year-olds make up a significant number of the local population. The proposed option will do nothing to enhance, let alone accommodate, an environment to support such an elderly population. Many residents in Yarnfield who are elderly and infirm will have to live with those proposals being imposed on them. Not only will they create dust, noise, light pollution and total disruption to all the residents of numerous surrounding villages and the Stone town, they will also ruin the lives of many who have chosen to retire to a rural environment and who have settled in the area in good faith. People in Stone town itself are also deeply concerned.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Although the development is not as close to my constituency as it is to his, there will be an impact on Great Bridgeford, Little Bridgeford and Ellenhall. In addition, if I am not wrong, there has been substantial new building of homes in Yarnfield itself and people will not have been aware that this was coming when they purchased those homes.

That is completely true. I concur with my hon. Friend. Indeed, people who came to the public meeting said that they moved to Yarnfield precisely because they thought that it was a peaceful area. They moved away from areas that had been disrupted by HS2 proposals, but now they find themselves saddled with them again.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England wrote about the proposals on Monday:

“The site is in the green belt, and CPRE has a long standing commitment to protect those special areas…In the case of HS2a...We considered and accepted that the best location for the main construction compound was on railway land at Basford Sidings, south of Crewe. Temporary satellite compounds would be needed at points along the line during the construction period. The decision by HS2 Ltd to transfer the main railhead compound to Stone in place of the depot at Crewe then upgrade to a permanent one and include it in the Hybrid Bill”,

which will come before Parliament,

“has caused us immense concern.”

The consultation proposals are entirely silent on many important details. Nowhere in them can we find the specified acreage of the railhead and compound. How can such consultation proposals and maps be provided to my constituents, causing great fear, anxiety and disruption in the area, without HS2 Ltd transparently showing the precise acreage of the proposed railhead and compound?

As I have said before, a great deal of noise, vibration, poor air quality, HGV traffic and visual intrusion will result from the proposed works. The consultation paper refers to the location having

“good connections to the existing Norton Bridge to Stone Railway”,

yet Norton Bridge is currently under a departmental consultation for closure, and it has certainly not been made at all clear what possible strategic link could be made to Stone railway.

On roads and highways, the proposed closure of Yarnfield Lane for three years is totally unacceptable to local residents, as it will compromise the health and welfare of the community and their ability to travel around the area. The proposal to use Eccleshall Road as an access and supply route to the construction site is untenable. It will block the whole area, which is already over-subscribed, and cause unbelievable chaos.

Stone Town Council is also concerned about the impact on the Walton area of Stone, where a strategic development location for 500 houses has been identified in the Stafford borough plan. The proposed railhead and sidings encroach on to that land. The maintenance facility must not be allowed to interfere with the local borough plan for Yarnfield and Stone. The design also proposes the use of the M6 as a supply route to the site, but that area of motorway is well known among local residents for becoming effectively a car park as soon as a traffic incident occurs. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford knows that that is absolutely true. The traffic will come back on to the local roads, the A34 and the A51, and that will make the situation even worse.

The proposal to use Pirehill Lane as a supply and service route to the construction site further out towards Whitgreave is ill-conceived and has no credibility. The proposal is absolutely unacceptable, and, furthermore, it has not been thought through. The consequences for local people are devastating. Although Stafford Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council say at the moment that they neither support nor object—that they are simply weighing up the situation—they have expressed concerns about the consultation, closing Yarnfield Lane, access to the M6, the connection to Norton Bridge station, the strategic housing allocation for Stone and existing housing developments, all of which I have written to the Minister about.

Cold Norton, where there is a cluster of 40 dwellings within 500 metres of the M6, does not even seem to have been mentioned in the documents. If the B5026 and Yarnfield Lane, in particular, are closed during the works, my constituents in Cold Norton, Norton Bridge, Chebsey, Yarnfield, Swynnerton and Eccleshall will have their main travel route into Stone severed. Great Bridgeford and many other areas that concern my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will also be affected.

There is also the question of the Yarnfield sports centre, which hosts extremely well-attended football games on weeknights. It will have incredible difficulty.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the incredible disruption to the Yarnfield conference centre, which is becoming a major regional conference centre and hosting conferences from all over the country, and which has had a lot of investment?

Not at all. I was only going to say that, as Stone Town Council made clear, more than 80,000 visitors a year come to the regionally significant footballing facility at Wellbeing Park, Yarnfield. The closure of Yarnfield Lane will reduce the accessibility of the facility and force users to approach it through the village of Yarnfield rather than on the A34.

The Yarnfield Park training and conference centre is located in the village of Yarnfield and would be badly affected by the proposed closure of Yarnfield Lane, along with the disruption from the building work to create the railhead compound. Richard Smith of Compass Group has submitted to the consultation statements indicating that Yarnfield Park is one of the UK’s largest training and conference centres, with 338 bedrooms and more than 50 meeting and training spaces. The venue is operated by Compass Group, and it welcomes more than 50,000 residential guests per year. It has stated in a submission to me that the proposal to close Yarnfield Lane for an extended period would do extreme damage to its local business. The board of governors at Springfields First School have said that the closure of Yarnfield Lane would be intolerable. This has not been concluded, and I urge the Minister not to continue with these proposals, as they relate to my area, because of the arguments that I have made.

I turn to the effect of the proposals on Baldwins Gate, Bar Hill, Whitmore and Madeley. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 3 November about those areas. I urged him to refer back to the non-technical summary HS2 consultation document and the November 2016 report from Atkins, the famous rail engineering firm, on “Rail alternatives to HS2 Phase 2a”; and I urged him please to reconsider option 1 in the Atkins report, which has not yet been discounted. It is less expensive than the HS2 phase 2a project, while providing almost the same benefits, and it would avoid the need to carry out what is described as the “expensive” and “complex” section of HS2 phase 2a north of Baldwins Gate.

That option would avoid almost entirely the very expensive harm that the current project will impose on the parishes of Whitmore and Madeley. In particular, it would avoid the complex and expensive operation of raising the A53 by as much, some believe, as 8 metres in order for the track to be able to run under it, and driving a twin-bore tunnel under the development known as “The Heath” at the edge of Baldwins Gate. I urge that the cost-benefit comparison between the two solutions, current HS2 phase 2a versus high-cost option No. 1, be revisited. Adopting the high costs of option 1 would greatly simplify the construction project, offering virtually the same benefits as the current HS2 phase 2a project and, according to the Atkins estimate, would cost over £1 billion less. Fundamentally, for my constituents, this proposal would save the parishes of Whitmore and Madeley from the devastation that they currently face.

It seems that HS2 Ltd was convinced that the heath was flat and consisted of solid sandstone. It now accepts that it is not flat, and it has been informed that the ground is the remains of a sand and gravel quarry. In other words, the heath is completely soft and unstable, and HS2 cannot tunnel through it. HS2 is due to drill boreholes to verify that, but it does not seem to have got around to doing so. We think that that is for the very good reason that the proposal will not stand up. There will also be traffic chaos on the A53 for the duration of the construction work, which is seven years, as it is meant to be an access route to the area for construction vehicles.

I strongly back my constituents in seeking support for the Atkins report alternative of option 1. This is the best option available for my constituents, primarily because it proposes to connect HS2 phase 2a to the west coast main line south of Baldwins Gate. The HS2 line would then run to Crewe on the fast track of the west coast main line. In that area of my constituency, this option would avoid the permanent major adverse impact of the Meece valley viaduct and embankment, the Whitmore south cutting, the Whitmore wood cutting and the Lea valley viaduct, which threaten to have a serious impact on my constituents’ properties.

Option 1 would obviate the costly tunnelling at Whitmore heath, Madeley and Bar Hill. It would save significant amounts of money, and it would prevent the devastation of ancient woods and lands and the damage that will cause to my local area. In the absence of this proposed change, my constituents have expressed a strong interest in the creation of a tunnel from Whitmore to Madeley, as the “next best option”. The proposal for a tunnel from Whitmore to Madeley would avoid the destruction by HS2 works of 33% of Whitmore wood, the viaduct and embankments in the Lea valley and the disruptive work on Manor Road.

I understand from emails I have received that HS2 is considering a longer and lower tunnel option, combining the tunnels of Whitmore heath and Bar Hill into one long deeper tunnel. Many of my constituents, including representatives of the Whitmore and Baldwins Gate HS2 action group, believe that this is the best option. Whitmore and Madeley should receive special treatment and get the longer, lower tunnel. There is no other tunnel on the whole of the HS2 route that has such a large density of rural housing as the Whitmore tunnel.

On the question of Whitmore heath, the unfathomable delays in carrying out the work of drilling boreholes and taking samples to establish the nature of the ground is a real problem in itself. HS2 Ltd says it is sandstone and conglomerate rock, but the only sensible way to find out is to drill boreholes. We insist that something is done, because such work has not yet been done. Even its former chief executive officer Simon Kirby, in a letter written to me on 3 August, stated that boreholes are needed. I need the Minister to intervene.

Finally, on woodland loss, the Woodland Trust wrote to me on Monday—I will forward the letter to the Minister —saying that the work at Whitmore wood under the scheme

“will result in 6ha of loss from this ancient woodland.”

Swynnerton old park will be affected, as will Hey Sprink. Barhill wood will be affected, with 0.5 hectares of loss. Grafton’s wood will again be affected; it has been greatly affected already by the west coast main line. All these areas need to be protected. The Woodland Trust supports us completely, as does the CPRE.

In conclusion, I simply say that, as far as I am concerned, the Minister has alternatives in front of him. The Bill has not yet been drafted, and it would be possible for these changes to be made in the areas of Yarnfield, Stone and all the other villages I have mentioned, as well as in Great Bridgeford and the other parts of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford that will be affected. We have had tremendous problems with HS2, as the Minister knows. Will he please do something about it, because we have not had the right consultation? Other options are available, and he has the opportunity to put this right. Will he please do so, and will he also tell us what the arrangements are for Stoke-on-Trent and about the question of having a stopover there?

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on securing this debate on the consultation process for phase 2 of HS2, and specifically on his constituency of Stone. I acknowledge his tireless work on behalf of his constituents, alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), in challenging HS2 Ltd to really examine its practices to seek the best possible outcome for the people of Staffordshire.

Having said that, I must also restate the strategic importance of HS2 to our country’s infrastructure and its longer term economic health. The number of seats available out of Euston at peak hours will treble as a result of HS2, relieving congestion while freeing up space on the existing network. Journey times will be cut not just along the newly built line but to destinations throughout the north of England and Scotland. Although, as has often been said, HS2 will become the largest infrastructure project in Europe, its value is not as a stand-alone project but as a fully integrated part of our national rail infrastructure.

With that in mind, we have a duty to consider how each region will benefit from the project, but we must also consider those for whom the construction of the railway will have a cost. For that reason, the ongoing consultation and engagement form such an integral part of HS2’s remit. That will continue to be the case throughout both phases of HS2, and I intend to give a brief overview of that process later. However, I wish first to turn to some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend regarding his own constituency.

Let us start with the proposed railhead near Stone. I fully understand that the proposals as they stand will have a significant impact on some of my hon. Friend’s constituents. That is clearly the case, and so I reinforce the Secretary of State’s commitment to treating those along the route with “fairness, compassion and respect”. In doing so, it is important not to lose sight of the need to deliver the best outcome for the country as a whole—we have a mixture of the individual and the public here.

I must remind my hon. Friend of why we are looking at a railhead at Stone. If the proposal were to go ahead, it would allow HS2 Ltd to significantly accelerate the construction schedule of phase 2a; because the site is situated in the middle of the phase 2a route, it would allow construction to start to the north and the south simultaneously, while negating the need for maintenance loops at Pipe Ridware, to the south of the site. That is why HS2 Ltd has put the idea forward. In addition to the programme-wide benefits, there would be benefits to the region in the form of approximately 150 new jobs.

If the railhead at Stone goes ahead, it will clearly have to be built with minimum disruption to local residents. The documents accompanying the recent consultation represented a worst-case scenario. It is important to say that no decision has been taken on road access to the site or on the closure of Yarnfield Lane, and HS2 Ltd must seek to keep the lane open; it will try to do so whenever it can. The strong message from colleagues tonight will clearly have been heard.

It cannot be overemphasised, however, that the consultation process underpins and is integral to all route decisions. As it is the main point of debate tonight, let me move directly to the consultation process. I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the length of the consultation, as we have met and discussed it previously. However, we have been pleased by the high number of responses we have received to the three consultations, which suggest that residents have been able to engage with the issue and respond positively. I will update the House on the number of responses we have had. There were 442 responses to the working draft environmental impact assessment report, 98 responses to the equality impact assessment and 553 responses to the design refinement consultation, representing a total of 1,093 responses to the three consultations. I think the design refinement consultation has particularly exercised my hon. Friend, because it incorporates the proposed changes to the location of the railhead and depot.

As to the length of the consultation, I should say that the phase 2a consultations followed the same timescale as the phase 1 consultations. We are not seeking to treat one part of the country differently from any other. It is important to state that we have been entirely consistent on that. I have been through this with HS2 Ltd, and I am persuaded that during the course of the eight weeks it has been effective in getting out there and meeting people. I have looked at the press adverts that have gone out advertising the venues. There have been adverts highlighting the consultations in the Crewe Chronicle, the Staffordshire Newsletter, the west midlands’ Express & Star, The Sentinel, the Advertiser and the Lichfield Mercury. Those adverts have appeared on a number of occasions. There has also been a social media effort, which has reached several hundred thousand people. There has been positive engagement, as well as a series of public meetings, including in Yarnfield.

I understand entirely why this matter is of concern to colleagues and the people they represent. I am very supportive of the idea of a hotline. HS2 Ltd already offers colleagues individual technical briefings and I will make sure that those continue. It would be helpful to have a hotline for MPs and that idea is on the agenda for my next meeting with HS2 Ltd, so it is already in play. I am interested to hear that colleagues think it would be a good idea.

I am very grateful for that positive response. I raised the idea with the interim construction commissioner several weeks ago, so obviously it has filtered into the system. A hotline would be of great assistance to my colleagues who are here, as well as to me and other colleagues in Buckinghamshire.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment. This is an important national project, but it has such implications for people on the line of route that we have to ensure that we treat everybody with openness, transparency and respect. Making sure that colleagues are informed, so that they can deal with their constituents and make the case for their areas effectively, is a key part of that.

I will certainly look into the consultation process. We have already made some changes for the consultation on phase 2b. I was able to do that before the announcements were made last week. I will always take feedback from colleagues and if we can improve things, we certainly will do. We have to treat people fairly and I am sure that the significant efforts that are being made now will pay dividends later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked about the timing of the Bill and whether people will have the opportunity to petition. We are looking to introduce the hybrid Bill for phase 2a next year and that will, indeed, offer residents the opportunity to petition, as was the case with phase 1.

As well as the measures I mentioned earlier, the publicity for the consultation took the form of leaflets distributed to households within 1 km of the proposed route, alongside information packs sent to public libraries and parish councils, with the request that the documents be made available at all community locations. Furthermore, briefings were provided for local authorities and parish councils.

There has often been feedback that the consultation events are not handled professionally. I have not been to the consultation events that have taken place for phase 2a, but I know that HS2 Ltd has always arranged training for staff to prepare them and clearly set out the conduct required for such events. I am confident that in the overwhelming number of cases, staff conduct themselves well, but any time any colleague has any concerns, I will be extremely available to hear them and will take them up with HS2 Ltd.

On the wider implications of the process we are discussing, I assure all colleagues that HS2 Ltd will continue to build on the good engagement work that has been done thus far as it goes forward with the phase 2 consultation.

I just want to be sure that my hon. Friend gets on to the Whitmore and Baldwins Gate question, because we are running out of time and I want to hear what he has to say on that.

We are, indeed, running out of time. I will go through all the points that have been raised with HS2 Ltd and ask it to contact my hon. Friend to give him an individual technical briefing on the subject. We have only seconds left, but the key thing is to treat this matter properly and not rush it. We will go through all the points he has mentioned.

I can quickly respond to the point about Stoke. We have asked HS2 Ltd to consider how we can have a service for Stoke, through to Macclesfield. That is a work in progress that has just been commissioned by the Secretary of State.

Debates such as these give us the opportunity to air and discuss the impact of HS2 on communities. They are vital in ensuring that we get the project right locally and nationally. This project will deliver for the whole country. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to highlight all that is going on. I know he will continue to be a resolute advocate on behalf of his constituents, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. As the Minister for HS2, I will always be available to be contacted and will always take up the issues they raise on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.