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HS2: Buckinghamshire

Volume 659: debated on Monday 29 April 2019

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the proposals from Buckinghamshire County Council requesting that all enabling work for HS2 in Buckinghamshire is paused until notice to proceed to the main works contractors has been approved.

Order. I gently point out at this stage that the question is narrowly about Buckinghamshire; it is not the occasion for a general debate about HS2. I will consider the Minister’s reply in making a judgment about whether it has been broadened, but at this point it is narrow.

Completing HS2 is Government policy and is crucial to unlocking economic growth and improved productivity in the midlands and north. It is supported by Members on both sides of this House. I therefore have no intention of halting work on HS2 in Buckinghamshire or elsewhere. There are already 7,000 people and 2,000 businesses working to deliver the HS2 project, and early works are well under way. Once HS2 Ltd has reached agreement with its suppliers and the Government are satisfied about both affordability and value for money, we will make a full business case for phase 1. This will inform notice to proceed, which is the formal contractual process that enables each phase 1 supplier to move from design and development to construction. Notice to proceed is scheduled to take place later this year. The works that are now taking place are necessary to enable the construction of HS2 to move forward in accordance with the programme, following notice to proceed.

We are aiming for HS2 to be one of the most environmentally responsible infrastructure projects ever delivered in the UK, and managing its impact on the environment during construction is a high priority. HS2 will deliver a new green corridor made up of more than 650 hectares of new woodland, wetland and wildlife habitats alongside the line. More than 7 million new native trees and shrubs will be planted, to help blend the line into the landscape and leave a lasting legacy of high-quality green spaces all along the route. It will include more than 33 sq km of new and existing wildlife habitat—an increase of around 30%, compared with what is there now. Many of the early works that are now taking place on HS2 are activities aimed precisely at creating this environmental legacy. They are being done now to ensure that they become fully established as early as possible, alongside construction of the railway.

The notice to proceed for HS2 has again been delayed, I believe until December. In the meantime, enabling works continue to blight large parts of the county, and this error-ridden project is costing our local authorities more and more. The situation is critical, with the area of outstanding natural beauty suffering irreparable environmental damage from preparatory works, rather than the “legacy” the Minister just referred to, and the costs spiralling out of control, when this project could well be cancelled. Indeed, millions are being spent on consultants to try to reduce the costs, which will in all likelihood result in failure to deliver on environmental protections and promises.

Already hedgerows have been netted or removed, machinery has been brought in to remove mature oak trees, country road verges have been destroyed by HGVs, massive ugly earthworks have appeared at our prime tourist sites, construction worker camps are surrounded by prison-like barriers, and there is the horror of the depopulated areas where homeowners were forced to sell to HS2.

It is almost impossible to hold this monster to account. Written questions are answered so poorly that I have to submit freedom of information requests to elicit basic information. I want some straight answers today. Why is only a junior Minister with other responsibilities in charge of the largest infrastructure project in Europe, which costs more than Brexit? Surely it should have its own Minister, if not its own Department. In her written answer today and in her statement just now, the Minister gives the impression that the entire decision on the go-ahead of this project comes from her. Will she be the sole Minister responsible for issuing the notice to proceed?

Why has the cost of HS2 not been updated since 2015, and what are the actual costs at today’s prices? What is the latest evaluation of the cost-benefit analysis, and why has that not been done already? When will the Treasury review be completed, and will a full report be published? Is the delivery of HS2 still being flagged with an amber-red warning, and how regularly is Cabinet updated on this project? Has HS2 applied for and received all the environmental licences and permissions required to carry out this environmental vandalism in Buckinghamshire?

What level of control and monitoring does the Secretary of State exercise over the awarding of contracts and the finances, and if he does have a level of control, why has £1.7 million that was paid out in unauthorised redundancy payments not been recovered or any director held to account? What would it cost to cancel the project now? Why, with so many doubts and unanswered questions, will the Government not agree to a perfectly reasonable request from Bucks County Council to have a six-month pause to do a total re-evaluation of this project, which has already blown its timetable and its budget before it even has the go-ahead?

The Minister’s use of the words “along the route” in her initial reply has somewhat widened the scope, which is no doubt music to the ears of the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and, to judge by his grinning countenance, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax).

My right hon. Friend has posed a number of questions, which I will do my best to get through. She has expressed her disappointment that I am not the Secretary of State, but I am indeed the Minister responsible for this project. Not only is the project this Government’s policy, but it was in the Conservative party’s manifesto as well as in the Labour party’s manifesto. It is absolutely right that the Minister responsible for the project continues to undertake to ensure that it stays on track.

This is a good opportunity to remind the House why HS2 is so important. It is indeed a national project, and it is the largest infrastructure project in Europe. It will connect eight of our 10 biggest cities, connecting half of our country’s population, so every Member of Parliament in this place will have constituents who are positively impacted by HS2. It will create thousands of jobs directly and over 100,000 jobs indirectly, and the net positive for our economy will be well beyond £94 billion over its lifetime.

We always talk about investment in our rail network and why we need to have extra capacity when it comes to HS2, but demand on the west coast line has increased by 190% since 1995 and we are close to being unable to add any more seats or trains. People often stand the whole way on long-distance journeys, and while delays are less frequent than in the past, we need a solution, and HS2 provides that solution. It is supported by a number of leaders up and down the country, but particularly in the midlands and the north, who often comment not only to the media but to me that they are quite fed up about people in the south commenting on what is needed in the north.

My right hon. Friend wanted to know about the notice to proceed. The notice to proceed is the point when HS2 Ltd instructs its main works civil contractors to begin construction of the phase 1 railway, as set out in the HS2 development agreement, which was in the Bill that went through in 2017.

My right hon. Friend talked about the impacts on Buckinghamshire, and she has been a very passionate campaigner for her constituency. I understand that her constituents will be feeling some of the impacts of HS2’s construction, but the enabling works are absolutely crucial, especially when it comes to the environment. The early works are necessary to enable the construction of HS2 to proceed in accordance with the programme once notice to proceed is given. The existing programme of enabling works includes habitat creation, tree planting, ground investigation, the construction of work compounds, road improvements and utility diversions. This existing programme of enabling works has not changed, and it is the backbone of ensuring that further environmental mitigation can take place, which is why enabling works are so crucial. My right hon. Friend will know, because we have often talked about this, that HS2 is seeking to achieve no net loss in biodiversity across the route of the new railway.

My right hon. Friend also talked about the particular impacts in her constituency, and she has been a staunch campaigner on behalf of Buckinghamshire, which we know will be impacted by the line. A large section of the subsurface route, in the form of the 24 km Chilterns tunnel, has already been put through the hybrid Select Committee process. Furthermore, £3 million has been provided for the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, and there are the £5 million woodland fund, the £30 million road safety fund and the £40 million community and environment and business and local economy funds. Buckinghamshire has already received over 30% of all the awards it could be afforded.

HS2 is a large infrastructure project—there is no denying that—but it is absolutely vital if we are to focus on smashing the north-south divide and provide opportunities for people who live beyond London and the south-east. It is and will be the most important economic regeneration project for a generation, and it is absolutely right that parliamentarians commit to long-term infrastructure projects that reflect the needs of our country.

The last three years of political turbulence should have taught the Government that politics has to change. The diktats from Westminster must be replaced by co-production with communities, listening to what they are saying. It is unbelievable that, yet again, the Secretary of State has failed to make it to the Dispatch Box.

Week by week, we hear of the spiralling costs of HS2, and in a week when Labour is declaring a national climate emergency, it is clear that the full carbon and environmental cost of HS2 will be deeply damaging across Buckinghamshire, not least to the irreplaceable Chilterns, if the connectivity, route and infrastructure are not refocused. It is not the concept of the project that is wrong, as urgent capacity is needed to secure a significant modal shift from cars and HGVs to passenger and freight lines, but the governance of HS2 must be overhauled and fully integrated into the network enhancements programme. Labour aspires to high speed rail, which has to have a focus on interconnectivity to facilitate investment and economic growth in the northern cities and to compete with the internal flight market, thus becoming a sustainable alternative. However, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) is right to scrutinise the Secretary of State’s handling of the project.

Why is the Minister proceeding before a full business case, the skills capability and the real cost have received further scrutiny in the light of evidence that these measures have changed? What discussions has she had with the National Audit Office and the Transport Committee over the widely held concerns expressed over HS2 costs and environmental impact? Does the Minister believe, as has been argued by the Tory leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, that ultra-fast broadband replaces ultra-fast rail? That certainly shows a lack of understanding in the Minister’s party of the transport and economic needs of the north. Finally, will the Minister revisit the route plans to ensure that connectivity opportunities are maximised by this project?

Given how much playing of politics there was in that statement, one could forget that the Labour party actually supports HS2. In his “game changer” speech, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport spoke about its importance.

Before I go on to answer questions, we must remind ourselves that it is absolutely right that we do not focus only on what is required here in London and the south-east. In case they need reminding, I will tell shadow Front Benchers what Andy Burnham said recently:

“We don’t need London commentators telling northern leaders what we need…We need HS2”.

He—[Interruption.] If Opposition Front Benchers support northern Labour leaders, some support at the Dispatch Box, and when other opportunities arise, for the most important infrastructure project of our lifetimes is absolutely key.

I remind the House that Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said that HS2 is

“the opportunity to transform the prospects for the north—perhaps a once in 200-year opportunity.”

I know you take a close personal interest in HS2, given your constituency, Mr Speaker. You may be aware that the all-party parliamentary group on the northern powerhouse, which includes more than 80 MPs, recently put out a statement about how important HS2 is to ensure that we smash the north-south divide.

When there are criticisms of HS2 and constituents’ queries are not dealt with, it is absolutely right that we hold HS2 to account. Some individuals have to deal with the difficult impact of the line going near their homes. I am challenging HS2 repeatedly and will continue to do so. If any hon. Members have cases that have fallen short, I apologise, and I will be more than happy to hold further meetings.

As I mentioned earlier, this is one of our largest infrastructure projects and it will connect half of our country’s population. To adapt the motto of the Labour party, this line is for the many and not for the vested interests of the few who want to play politics with this important infrastructure project.

I am mindful of your own constituency, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) on her submissions just now. I simply want to ask the Minister this question. Does she think that this monstrous waste of money, which gives no benefit whatever to my constituents in Staffordshire, has been justified? Secondly, has she read the report commissioned by Mr Trevor Parkin and other constituents of mine, and written by Mr Michael Byng? It has completely exposed the unutterable waste of money that the project represents. Will she please take note of these representations and do what I understand some members of the Cabinet are doing? They are saying that they have had enough of the project.

My hon. Friend has worked tremendously hard on behalf of his constituency, and I think him for his question. He has been disappointed by some of the behaviour of HS2 Ltd and by the fact that some of his representations have not been favoured. I recognise all his work to represent his constituency, but unfortunately I do not agree with him. This project is incredibly important for the future of our country.

We cannot lament that we do not build long-term infrastructure projects or invest in our country for future growth, while at the same time not having confidence in vital projects such as HS2. It is not about decreasing journeys, even though that is absolutely key, but about bringing communities together, spreading wealth and job opportunities, and increasing capacity for both freight and people. We do not want everyone to assume that once they have finished their apprenticeship or job they have to get to London and the south-east to secure work. We need to ensure that companies move out of London and the south-east to Birmingham and other points on the line. That will create opportunities for everyone along this route.

Does the Minister understand that there is real frustration in towns across the country that the Government are putting billions of pounds into an ever-escalating budget for a rail project to connect cities, while at the same time huge numbers of towns, including in my constituency, have rubbish train connections and cannot even get investment for the additional carriages we need, never mind rail route upgrades? Will she undertake to provide a breakdown from her Department of the amount of capital rail funding going into projects for cities and the amount of money going into projects for towns?

I am more than happy to put together a note to put on paper the amount of investment we are making in our rail infrastructure in the north. There is one budget for HS2, and we are sticking to it.

I have sympathy for the Minister as a junior Minister being handed what looks increasingly like a poisoned chalice. I am also sympathetic to the fact that we cannot have an infrastructure project without environmental consequences. But does the Minister not understand that there is mounting disquiet about two things that are linked? First, the conduct of this project by HS2 is a shambles. It is particularly shambolic in its relations with local communities and in the fact that it takes a cavalier approach to any sort of engagement, including in closing down a nature reserve on the edge of my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) without any warning or notice at all.

Meanwhile, the costs escalate. I ask the question that my hon. Friend did not answer: is HS2 still being flagged as an amber-red warning? All the evidence suggests that the cost-benefit analysis is just not there. If that is the case, that should be of great concern across the House. My hon. Friend says we should keep politics out of it, but, forgive me, this is actually what politics is about: our collectively in this House paying some attention to whether public funds are being properly spent or not.

I have not been mansplained to at the Dispatch Box before, but here we are. I am indeed the Minister responsible for this project, and I was passionate about HS2 before I was given the portfolio. I may be a Member of Parliament for the south-east, but I grew up in Birmingham and HS2 just cannot come fast enough for us in the midlands. I do not know what to say to my right hon. and learned Friend about his comments. There is only one budget for HS2, and we will ensure that we can stick to that budget. That is why it is so important to get the business case together: not only to ensure that the costs are covered, but so that we can assess the positives it will bring to our economy. As I mentioned, the notice to proceed will be made public later in the year.

I understand my right hon. and learned Friend’s frustration about some of the conduct by HS2 Ltd and any upset it may have done to his community. Since I have been Minister, I have insisted on an increase in community engagement managers and that they are appropriately embedded in their community. When cases are brought to my attention, I challenge HS2. We also have a residents’ commissioner to undertake any concerns. It is unfortunate when a project this large is undermined by the behaviour of a few who do not appropriately manage relationships locally. As I said, when it has an impact on a Member’s constituency it is difficult for them to see the greater good it will do not only for that area but for the rest of the country.

Like the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), I have opposed HS2 from its inception; I recognise that she has been a sturdy fighter against it. I notice that the Minister has not answered questions on the total cost. She talks about the midlands benefiting from HS2, but Coventry will certainly not, because it will bypass Coventry. She says it will be a vehicle for ordinary people, but we do not actually know the train fares yet. Train fares on the west coast main line are very expensive to ordinary members of the public.

The train fares will be assessed and brought forward at the most appropriate time. We want this line to be accessible to everybody, and because thousands of people will travel on the line, we have to ensure that the fares are appropriate, as they will be. This line will be incredibly important, including to the midlands. I held a series of roundtables for midlands chambers of commerce, with one recently saying that it would be appalling if HS2

“were used as a political football…It is a key piece of national infrastructure at a time when we need to be showing something positive to the world.”

HS2 is a white elephant that grows ever larger on huge amounts of taxpayers’ cash. Back in 2013, when the project was unveiled, I predicted to the then Secretary of State that its cost would spiral to £100 billion, and he laughed. He was quite right to laugh, because if it is completed it will clearly cost far more than £100 billion. Does the Minister agree that the best thing to do is to scrap this project, lifting the blight from the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who live along the route, and split the original budget between link improvements in the midlands and the north, such as reopening the Ivanhoe line in north-west Leicestershire?

HS2 has one budget: £55.7 billion. Constant speculation around the budget undermines confidence in a project that we should be proud of, considering the positive impact it will have on our communities. Tickets will be on sale several years from now, when the line is up and running. I do not doubt that, when the line is up and running, nobody will talk about this moment right here and now when every element of the project is being constantly undermined. It is not a white elephant. It is creating capacity, reducing journey times, creating jobs and increasing productivity. It is a project that we should be proud of.

The Government need a clearly funded plan for HS2, to make sure that it benefits communities in the north, rather than disadvantaging them. When will the Government accept that, without infrastructure investment on the east coast main line, the HS2 project’s second phase risks exacerbating the current capacity constraint and low speeds by increasing the number of trains on this already stretched line? Will the Government confirm when the east coast main line will receive investment, to make sure that it is ready for HS2? That could have the intended benefit of bringing together the north and the south, rather than making the north further away.

This project is to bring together north and south and east and west; we cannot have HS3, or any other name that they want to give an east-west line, without HS2. There is only one budget—£55.7 billion. The Minister with responsibility for trains has said that there is substantial investment in the east coast main line. The hon. Lady talked about wanting to increase capacity, and that is exactly what HS2 will do.

As you know, Mr Speaker, our constituents also feel that they are being trampled under the great white elephant of HS2. My question relates to the difficulty I have in getting straight answers out of HS2 Ltd. I had a meeting in my office on 1 April in which I am afraid I was slightly bad-tempered, which is not my normal manner; I apologised, but this gets right under our skin. I have had no follow-up from that meeting, although I was promised real information. I echo the calls of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), because we need to pause this project while we get answers to important environmental questions.

If my hon. Friend was indeed enraged, all I can say is it will have been a very good meeting. I am sure HS2 will be listening to our exchanges. I know that a meeting took place on 1 April. I had hoped it would be productive. If it has not been, I will hold a meeting with her and work out what we can do to take this matter forward. She has some challenging cases to deal with and has made really good representations to me and HS2 Ltd. It is because this project will have an impact on the environment that we are doing everything we can to mitigate it, from planting over 7 million trees to ensuring no net loss in biodiversity, which are all things she is passionate about.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) for securing this urgent question. I have had a conversation with her and the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) about this project. We have seen significant cost overruns with Crossrail, so there isn’t one budget, is there? There is a significant over-budget. If the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who I would say is the finance director of the project, says we should probably cancel it, perhaps we should be listening—unless, of course, that is about her ambitions in the forthcoming Conservative party leadership contest. Tomorrow, I have a meeting with the managing director of Chiltern Railways, who suggests we should consider increasing capacity on existing track and additional track on the existing line. Would that not be a better use of the budget?

I am not sure who in the Treasury the hon. Gentleman was referring to, but I remind him that HS2 is a key priority of the Government and a manifesto commitment of the Conservative party, as it is of the Labour party. We are in peculiar political times, and I do not want to see one of the most important infrastructure projects of our lifetime being kicked around like a football. It is a long-term project, and it is important that we stay committed to it and ensure it remains on budget and on track. He mentioned a meeting with Chiltern Railways. I have just been reminded by my hon. Friend the Rail Minister that over £48 billion will be spent in control period 6.

The Minister spoke in her opening remarks about the economic benefits to the midlands and the north, and it is because of those benefits that I have up until now supported HS2, but she will realise that benefits in 15-plus years’ time are a hard sell to passengers whose daily commute is being blighted. Would she consider rescheduling a project that is almost certainly going to overrun anyway and releasing some additional funding in the immediate future to improve local services and boost the economy of the north by, for example, providing additional freight capacity between the Humber ports and the west coast ports?

We are committed to funding railways in the north. My hon. Friend mentions investment around the ports, and he will see the work I have undertaken with Maritime 2050 to encourage investment in infrastructure and research and evaluation around maritime that will benefit his community. He makes a valid point. The project has taken a long time to get to this point—never mind the first scheduled trains—and as a long-term project it requires solid commitment from Ministers and Members of Parliament. If we are ever to undertake programmes of work that are truly transformative and long-term, we will have to show commitment over a long period. If £94 billion is returned to the economy and 100,000 jobs are created, it will play some part in regeneration in his community as well.

I have always supported this project—it will come through my constituency, but the benefits to my constituency will be huge in terms of jobs created, the rolling stock depot and various other aspects—but there is a problem. We were supposed to vote on phase 2b of the route in 2019, but that has been pushed back and back. My constituents near to the route are getting no answers or timeline and are having to battle tooth and nail to get compensation from HS2. I urge my hon. Friend to tell HS2 that its community engagement does not do what it says on the tin. I have met HS2 several times and pointed out areas of the route that need improvement, and every time I have another meeting, it is like the last one never happened. More importantly, in meetings with my constituents, it is also like the last one never happened.

There are two problems that I think my hon. Friend needs to address. First, the time overrun is costing money, and secondly, the engagement with my constituents is not working properly. Can we learn the lessons from what is going on with phase 1—I hope that that keeps me in order, Mr Speaker—to ensure that we do not go through this process again when we reach phase 2?

I absolutely take on board my hon. Friend’s frustration. He has already made a number of representations to me and to the Secretary of State. HS2 Ltd must get better. I am hearing that at the Dispatch Box, and HS2 will be hearing it too. HS2 must improve its community engagement: it must ensure that the community engagement managers are working effectively and in a timely fashion, and ensure that answers are given to the questions that are being posed. I do not think it is fair that Members of Parliament are having to make representations on behalf of their constituents. HS2 should be sorting out the issues so that they do not even reach MPs’ surgeries, and I shall be taking that back to it as well.

I know that my hon. Friend—a bit like me—wants the line to come as soon as possible, but there was a slight delay to ensure that we were considering Northern Powerhouse Rail. He may remember that there was also an election, which took up a substantial amount of time.

If I recall correctly, HS2 was an unaffordable electoral carrot offered by Mr Blair and, I believe, Lord Adonis initially. It is regrettable that the Conservative party has taken it up, because it is unaffordable. May I suggest that the money that we have would be better spent first on upgrading the lines that we have, and then, if necessary, on expanding capacity by putting down new lines next to the existing ones, thereby reducing the impact on the countryside et al? In particular, of course, we would like a bit more money to be spent down in Dorset, please.

I feel slightly nervous about answering my hon. Friend’s question, because I have failed to turn up at a number of events in his constituency, and I am worried about the reception that I shall have at my next meeting there.

Let me remind my hon. Friend that investment in the lines in his area is already taking place. This is not an either/or project: we need to continue to invest in our traditional rail network. He referred to events in the past. I was not here at that time, but my job as a Minister is to ensure that we make the right decisions for the future. The impact that this project will have on our communities and on growth means that it is a very good project for us to support.