[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of High Speed Two on the villages of Hollins Green, Culcheth and Croft.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to have been granted this debate on the impact of the proposed High Speed 2 line on villages in my constituency. For the record, although I live in the village of Culcheth, our home is not one of those affected by the line. Nevertheless, many of us have believed for some time that what we call “the spur”—the Hoo Green to Bamfurlong section of the line—simply does not stack up economically, or in any other terms, and that the decision to join the main line north of Warrington, rather than north of Crewe, is flawed.
I have previously questioned the costings for that part of the line. I do not propose to go through all that again, but suffice it to say that if HS2 is seriously arguing that this part of the line will cost only 28.6% of the costs elsewhere, when a viaduct has to be built over the Manchester ship canal and the M62 and the East Lancashire Road have to be crossed, it is highly unlikely to be correct. In fact, many of us have believed for some time that the real justification for the spur was to avoid the constituency of a certain former Chancellor of the Exchequer, of this parish. Now, with the decision to make Crewe a main transport hub and to abandon plans for any depot at Golborne, it makes even less sense than it did.
Even so, neither HS2 nor the Government have taken full account of the concerns of people who live in the villages. One bit of the line was tweaked following representations from the owner of the Taylor business park just outside Culcheth. That mitigated some of the impact on some houses in Culcheth but increased the problems in Croft. However, the decision allowed the business park to be sold for an undisclosed sum, reported by local newspapers to be more than £19 million—without any gain, I suspect, to the British taxpayer, since the last time I looked most of the shares in the business park were held by a company registered in Belize. We often ponder why notice was taken of one person, and not of the representations of the rest of the community.
That part of the line, however, has serious implications for all three villages. That is what I will concentrate on today. For example, Wigshaw Lane is proposed for permanent closure. It is the route that leads from Culcheth to Croft, going on towards the centre of Warrington. Traffic will therefore be forced on to the other route towards town, which is the A574, despite the fact that that road is already at a standstill at peak times. An accident on the motorway or the East Lancashire Road can gridlock traffic all around the village. It is simply not sustainable to force more traffic on to an already congested road which is used as a cut-through by HGVs.
Importantly, Wigshaw Lane is also the direct link between Culcheth and Croft, and closing it will have a serious impact on people’s ability to access services in Culcheth village. For example, many people in Croft come into Culcheth to shop and to use the doctors’ surgeries there. Culcheth High School is the nearest high school to Croft and is attended by many of the young people from that village. They will be forced on to a much more unsafe route to school, and the road closure will have a particularly adverse impact on elderly and disabled people who come to shop in Culcheth.
There will of course also be problems for people who want to move the other way, from Culcheth to Croft and towards town. For example, the hospital is in the centre of town, and young people who want to access post-16 educational provision, whether at Warrington and Vale Royal College or Priestley College, need to go into the town centre. How people will get to early appointments in Warrington, or young people to classes, when the road is congested and often at a standstill is something that no one appears to have considered properly.
In fact, young people will be disproportionately affected by the closure because they move between the villages of Croft and Culcheth for sport and recreation, as well as education. Local air cadets, for example, are based in Croft. People go there from Culcheth and all around the town. The cadets are well respected—one member of my staff learned to fly with them—but the direct route there will be closed. Similarly, for young people who want to come from Croft to Culcheth to access after-school activities and sports facilities, there will be no direct route.
If that were not enough, another proposal is that the area known as the Oaks—which is on the alternative route, the A574—will lose more than 20% of its area. Culcheth Athletic junior football club has 23 teams that play there. The idea put forward by HS2, that they can all move to Shaw Street recreation ground in Culcheth, or the Culcheth sports and social club, which we call the Daten, is nonsense: four out of six pitches and the parking facilities are to be lost. It is interesting that the Government want people to be more active and for young people to take part in more sport and in the cadet forces, yet they are set on making it more difficult for them to do so in the area.
Another part of the community that will suffer a serious impact is the Catholic population. St Lewis Primary School is in Croft, as is St Lewis parish church. When the direct route is closed, young children will no longer have an even moderately safe route to school; they will be forced on to the congested A574. Older people and others who want to go to mass will be seriously inconvenienced. That is direct discrimination against the Catholic community, which goes against HS2’s declared policies.
If that were not enough, there is a proposal to put a construction depot on the A574, close to Newchurch Primary School and the residential houses that abut that road. That will increase not only traffic—yet again on a road that is already congested—but air and noise pollution for the primary school and the people who live in that area. Anyone who knows the villages would say that the proposal simply is not feasible.
As far as Hollins Green is concerned, there is a proposal to build a viaduct over the Manchester ship canal, despite the fact that on the nearby M6 the Thelwall viaduct often has speed restrictions because of high winds. It would be interesting to know how HS2 thinks that is feasible. Previous plans for a motorway in the area were rejected by the then Secretary of State on grounds that remain relevant to HS2: namely, that it would have an unacceptable environmental impact, and would cause a loss of green belt and a harmful effect on village life. That viaduct and its associated embankment will tower over the area. It will cut through a historic parish and it will destroy a network of footpaths between Hollins Green and Glazebrook.
As well as the environmental impact, there will be an economic impact on the villages. It might help the Minister if I explain that Culcheth is the centre village for Croft and Glazebury and, in some sense, for Glazebrook too. Lots of people from outside those areas come to the village because they are attracted by its mix of local shops and nice restaurants and pubs. When Wigshaw Lane had to be closed a few years ago for bridge repairs, there was a serious impact on local businesses, which lost a lot of trade. Culcheth also has a thriving night-time economy—because of the restaurants and so on. People come to the village from quite far away. That trade will be reduced if one of the main routes out is closed.
The new route will go straight through the Partridge Lakes fishery—a thriving family business built up over many years, which has also planted thousands of trees. Other businesses are situated there, too. For instance, there is a store that sells prom dresses—I think that is a thing now, although when I was growing up we just went to the pub when we left school. People come from all around to get their dresses there. There is a yoga studio and there is the Black Sheep Wools craft centre. The key thing to remember if those businesses go to the wall is that they encourage people to go to Culcheth village and spend money in the shops and restaurants. It would be a double whammy.
In Hollins Green, the Black Sheep pub will have the route going straight through its car park. People go to that pub from outside the village, and it holds a thriving farmer’s market that brings people into the village. We are constantly told that HS2 is beneficial to the economy. I do not think it is beneficial to the economy of these villages. Although I keep asking questions about the economic impact and the assessment that has been made of it, I do not get very satisfactory answers. The cost-benefit ratio of the line is estimated at between 0.5 and 0.8, but with the effect on those businesses, many of which will experience a serious loss of trade and some of which may go to the wall, that analysis changes. I hope the Minister will look at that very seriously.
There will be an impact on people’s health. The loss of the footpaths in Hollins Green, the loss of access to the linear park, which is used by walkers and horse riders, and the loss of the fishery where people are welcome to walk around, look at the wildlife and have a coffee, will have a serious impact on people’s access to green space. HS2 accepts that most anglers tend to be older men and a high proportion are disabled, although the fishery has done sterling work with young offenders to try to get them interested in the sport. We know that being out in the open air is beneficial not only to our physical health but to our mental health. Many of those benefits will be lost in those villages. We will pay the price in worse health, but in the end the country will pay the price in increased costs to the NHS.
It cannot be right that HS2 can come up with plans that anyone who knows anything about these villages thinks are unworkable. They take no account of the traffic situation, the economy of the villages and people’s health. They are just not feasible. In addition, many of them ignore HS2’s own stated equalities policies, because they have a disproportionate impact on young people, older and disabled people, and the Catholic community.
There is a way out of this situation. As the costs escalate, Ministers need to look at the cost of this part of the line. In fact, in previous debates I have undertaken, Ministers did agree that the costs needed to be looked at. The original cost of the spur was estimated at £800 million, whereas joining the main line north of Crewe was estimated at £750 million. The cost of the spur has risen to £1 billion. The original justification for not joining the main line north of Crewe was that a lot of work would need to be done to make Crewe station viable. Since the Higgins report, it has been decided that Crewe will be a main transport hub, so that work will have to be done anyway.
The other justification for the route was having a depot at Golborne, so that trains could turn around and come out of that depot. There is no longer going to be a depot there. I urge the Minister to look seriously at that. It has been said often that HS2 is of great benefit to big cities but not much benefit to towns. There is something in that. By looking again at the possibility of running trains out of Crewe to Chester, north Wales, Liverpool and up through Warrington, many towns could benefit much more, and the impact on villages could be avoided. If the Minister cannot do that, I strongly urge her to look at HS2’s plans for building the line and the impact on those villages. I sincerely believe that they will be disastrous for village life and the whole thing needs to be considered again.
The debate can last until 4.23 pm. Before calling the Minister to speak, I congratulate the hon. Lady on giving a detailed and knowledgeable speech for just under 15 minutes without referring to any notes whatsoever. I call the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate on the effect of High Speed 2 on the villages of Hollins Green, Culcheth and Croft. She gave us a lovely picture of her constituency.
I sympathise with the concerns the hon. Lady has raised with me, my Department and previous Ministers, and with HS2 Ltd itself. I shall provide an overview of why the project is important and then move on to the questions she asked. If I fail to respond to them all, I hope she will allow me to correspond with her in writing to ensure that everything is down on paper. I do not doubt for a moment that she will continue to champion action on behalf of her constituency.
HS2 is a critical project for our country. It will be the backbone of our national rail network. It really will help to rebalance our economy, create opportunities for regeneration and lessen the north-south divide. The strategic case for HS2 is that it will increase capacity on our overcrowded rail network and improve journeys into and between the major towns and cities of the midlands and the north. It will connect eight of our 10 biggest cities, and it will more than double the number of seats from Euston in peak hours, carrying more than 300,000 people every day.
I know the hon. Lady raised concerns on behalf of her constituents, but we are already starting to see the benefits of HS2. More than 7,000 people are working on the line and more than 2,000 businesses are working to deliver the new railway. Opportunities for jobs and apprenticeships are being created across the country; I am pleased to say that more than 250 new apprenticeships have been created so far. The project is critical. It will connect half of our country’s population. Even though the hon. Lady’s constituents may be asking, “What’s in it for me?”, they are among that half of the population that the project will impact by helping to rebalance the economy.
HS2 is an essential component in the delivery of the Government’s and Transport for the North’s plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail. For example, the current designs for NPR use HS2 infrastructure into Manchester and Leeds. If we did not build HS2 phase 2b, we would need to send NPR back to the drawing board. The two projects are complementary and will work in tandem to transform connectivity across the north, bringing towns and cities together. If the hon. Lady does not want to take my word for it, I have a recent article by Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of the Liverpool city region, in which they talk about the benefits that I hope she will—
Let me just go through the quote. I have many more—too many for this debate—but this one is important, because it mentions the benefits in the north. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram wrote:
“The economic output of Greater Manchester could double to around £132bn by 2050”
because of HS2,
“contributing at least 40,000 new jobs. Liverpool city region forecasts £15bn of economic growth and 24,000 new jobs.”
You will be surprised to learn, Mr Hollobone, that we often read criticism of HS2. It tends to come from the press, which tends to be based down here. Importantly, in their article, those leaders of the north wrote:
“We don’t need London commentators telling northern leaders what we need.”
It is important to reflect what is wanted and needed beyond London and the south-east.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; she is very kind. However, I think she is making my point about HS2 benefiting big cities rather than towns. Warrington is in neither Greater Manchester nor Merseyside—it is in Cheshire—and it will not have a station on the line. As my constituents have argued, areas that are getting a station might be able to weigh the benefits against the costs, but for areas that are not getting a station and already have an hourly service to London, as we do, the situation is much more difficult.
The hon. Lady raises some important points. I note that she does not actually criticise HS2 but expresses a desire for a station. Unfortunately, if I provided a station to everyone who wanted one, the project would not be going anywhere very fast anytime soon. There are already 2,000 businesses and 7,000 people involved in the project, and at its peak there will be 30,000 people building this railway, so I do not doubt for a moment that every part of the country will be touched in a positive way, whether it is by the economic opportunities or the jobs that HS2 provides.
Let me turn to the questions the hon. Lady raised. She made a robust argument about the Golborne link. The Government will continue to invest in upgrades to the conventional rail network, including the west coast main line, in addition to their proposals for the development and delivery of HS2. However, only HS2 will be sufficient to meet the long-term growth in demand that is forecast on the existing network. HS2 is the right intervention to address the capacity constraints on the west coast and east coast main lines. The Government have already considered alternative schemes to HS2, including upgrading the existing railway, but no other option can deliver the same scale of benefits as HS2 phase 2b.
The Golborne link is the most effective way to deliver the much-needed capacity on the west coast main line. It has two key purposes: it avoids a constrained section of the west coast main line, improving capacity and reliability on that line, and it delivers faster journey times for destinations north of the connection, such as Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Cumbria and Scotland. The hon. Lady mentioned costs and benefits. Proposed alternatives to the Golborne link would reduce the benefits of HS2 without necessarily saving money. Early analysis shows that delivering the same benefits, such as the published journey times to the north and Scotland, without the Golborne link may add an extra £0.8 billion to the cost of HS2.
Let me move on to some further points the hon. Lady raised about HS2 and Warrington. HS2’s arrival is becoming integral to local plans in Warrington and the surrounding area. Warrington stands to benefit from HS2 services, which will cut journey times between Warrington and London to just over an hour, supporting enhanced growth in and around the town. HS2 is already driving employment opportunities, with approximately 80 businesses in the north-west now working on the early stages of the project. Decisions about service patterns will be taken in the future, taking into account factors such as demand and local considerations. The HS2 indicative train service specification shows Warrington Bank Quay being served by one HS2 train per hour in phase 1, which it will continue to receive when phase 2b opens.
I turn now to some of the important local points that the hon. Lady raised. I must place on record the fact that she has campaigned on behalf of her constituents by writing to raise arguments with the Department, especially since I have been there, and no doubt with the previous Minister, too. The local issues she has raised are very important to the Government and HS2 Ltd. I was particularly struck by some of the cases she made, and I will raise them directly with HS2 Ltd. I will ensure that I get a detailed response to all the points she raised if I am able to; otherwise, I will invite her to have a conversation with me about anything that is outstanding.
We are mitigating particularly in the following areas. On Wigshaw Lane, we are acutely aware of the issues the proposed road alignment presents and are currently working on alternatives. HS2 Ltd is already engaged with Warrington Borough Council on the closure of Wigshaw Lane. It is also looking to change the alignment of the viaduct in the Hollins Green area to move it further away from Hollinfare cemetery and the local community. The alignment of the viaduct would also be adjusted north and south of that point.
On the construction compounds near Hollins Green, the location and dimensions of some of the compounds shown in the working draft environmental consultation are being considered in the light of local feedback. That includes trying to reduce the size of compounds in the area. Developments to the design will help move compounds further away from residents in Hollins Green. The details in the draft code of construction practice, which formed part of the working draft environmental statement consultation, will help provide residents with reassurance about some areas of concern with construction compounds.
More broadly, we have already consulted on the working draft environmental statement for phase 2b. That consultation, through which we sought views from local stakeholders and residents along the route, closed at the end of last year. My officials and HS2 Ltd are analysing the responses and will continue to listen to the concerns of local people through HS2 Ltd’s engagement teams and meetings with local councils. I will ensure that the hon. Lady has a link into the HS2 Ltd team so she has an individual to direct her concerns to, and ensure that community meetings take place at the appropriate time.
The hon. Lady raised an important point about the viaduct versus the tunnel. That issue has been raised by many local stakeholders. Boring under the canal would require a particularly large land take either side of the canal to support tunnelling to the depth required. That means that much more land would be required in the area by a tunnel than by the proposed viaduct. That would have an impact on land and property in the area. The soil conditions in the area would also make tunnel construction difficult; the area around the tunnel is peat, so the tunnel would have to be very deep and constantly drained.
The hon. Lady made an interesting point about the depot no longer being situated at Golborne. The decision to relocate the depot to just north of Crewe was made in response to consultation feedback—particularly from local stakeholders—about open spaces and public amenities. The route through this area is still the Secretary of State’s preferred route and is not dependent on the depot being located at Golborne; that is a completely separate issue.
The hon. Lady raised an important point about the environment and the mental and physical health of her constituents. HS2 Ltd has a target to ensure that there is no net loss of biodiversity. Substantial funds are in place in the earlier phases to ensure that we are greening as we go along. HS2 launched a green corridor along phase 1 of the route, which includes 3,340 hectares of wildlife habitat, a 33% increase on existing habitat. HS2 is also committed to planting 7 million trees and shrubs along the line.
The hon. Lady mentioned pitches. HS2 Ltd is aware of the reduction in available pitches and is exploring options to re-provide those. I was moved by the points she raised, so I will keep a close eye on that and do my best to ensure that we get a positive outcome. Otherwise, I am more than happy to meet her to ensure that her points are, at the very least, heard and responded to by HS2 Ltd.
As I said earlier, this project is crucial for our country, especially in smashing the north-south divide. I appreciate that that will not provide succour for the hon. Lady’s constituents when she returns home this weekend. The Government are already spending more than £48 billion on our existing rail network, but that is not enough. We need to build extra capacity. HS2 is not just about passengers; it is about freight, taking cars off the road and encouraging people to use the railway instead of taking flights.
I am loth to read out another quote, because the hon. Lady will say, “It’s not close to home for me,” but let me reference Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, because it is appropriate.
It is not about being close; it is about the importance of the project for our whole country and for the north in particular. Judith Blake said HS2 is
“the opportunity to transform the prospects for the north—perhaps a once in 200-year opportunity.”
Politicians are often criticised for not thinking long term, planning for infrastructure on a large enough scale or understanding what our country needs going forward. HS2 addresses that. It is a large project. I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but HS2 Ltd is tasked to ensure that it mitigates its impact on the environment and communities.
I welcome the opportunity the debate has provided once again to reflect on how important HS2 is. We must remember that it has cross-party support: when the Bill for phase 2a went through Parliament, only 12 MPs opposed it. It was in all three main political parties’ manifestos. It is right that we continue to focus on delivering it, and it is also right that HS2 Ltd works appropriately, with humility and sympathy, with the communities it will be building the line through.
Question put and agreed to.