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High Speed 2

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 18 September.

“Spades are already in the ground for HS2 and we remain focused on its delivery. The Minister for Rail and HS2, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my honourable friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), is in the Czech Republic today to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Czech Government, and tomorrow he will be in Poland to attend TRAKO, supporting UK rail supply chain companies at a major European rail trade fair. For that reason, I am responding on behalf of the Government. Construction continues in earnest, with about 350 active construction sites, and we are getting on with delivery, with high-speed rail services between London and Birmingham Curzon Street due to commence in 2033, with the re-scoped stages following. This will specifically drive the regeneration of 1,600 acres, delivering 40,000 homes and supporting 65,000 jobs in outer London. The benefits of HS2 for Birmingham are already being realised; the area around Curzon Street station is already becoming a focal point for transformation, development and economic growth. The Government provide regular six-monthly reports on HS2 to the House, and we will continue to keep the House updated on the project.”

My Lords, is it not an unmitigated failure of Conservative rail policy that, yesterday, in the other place, its own chair of the Transport Committee commented on the false economy of what is supposed to be the fast rail network that delivers against levelling-up goals, but which will reach neither the great cities of the north or central London? He said that HS2

“would not realise the full benefits of the line and communities will have been enormously impacted for no great benefit”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/9/23; col. 1109.]

Back in March, when reports of a delay emerged, I told the House that this chronic indecision was benefitting no one. Now, through a photograph published in the Independent, we learn that the route could be scaled back even further. Given that, in January this year, the Chancellor said that he could not see any conceivable circumstance in which HS2 would not end at London Euston, can the Minister confirm that the line will not terminate at Old Oak Common and when, if ever, it will reach Manchester?

There has been an awful lot of media speculation and hypotheticals. As noble Lords will know, the Department for Transport, and indeed every single government department, will periodically look at major infrastructure projects, which in this case includes HS2. We are committed to keeping the House updated, as we have done for many years. There will be a regular six-monthly report on HS2 to keep the House updated in due course.

My Lords, this is death by a thousand cuts for HS2, if I can be excused the pun—cuts to the route and cuts to the funding. Each time the Government shave another slice off the route, it further undermines the purpose of the whole project, and each time this happens it marginally reduces the total cost but increases the cost per mile and fatally undermines the purpose of the scheme. Earlier, the Minister conspicuously failed to confirm that Great British Rail is still in the Government’s plans. If that was a mistake, she may like to take this opportunity to put this right. Is she not embarrassed to be here, week after week, trying to defend this Government of dither and delay? Can she tell us whether the Government have done any calculation as to the adverse economic and reputational impact of their failure to deliver on HS2 on the ability of cities in the north of England to attract investment?

Of course, a vast amount of analysis on HS2, and indeed on all infrastructure projects, goes on all the time. There are many elements in attracting investment to northern cities, or indeed to cities anywhere. Schemes such as the city region sustainable transport settlements put billions of pounds into Manchester, which the mayor can spend on local transport schemes. There is the opportunity for local partnerships to improve local train services as well. That is a key part of GBR. I can reassure the noble Baroness that the GBR transition team still exists and is doing the work; GBR is making very good progress indeed. Obviously, I cannot second guess what will be in the King’s Speech, but there is a lot of work going on in GBR and many reforms are being put in place. I hope that the noble Baroness is content with that.

My Lords, the Minister knows very well my views on this worthless, scandalous, vanity project—which I think most of the country now share. In January 2017, I put to this House the opportunity to stop it, but we decided to go ahead. Reliable sources now say that it will cost £150 billion. Is it not the case that, even if we have spent £5 billion, £10 billion or £20 billion so far, sensible accountants always say you do not pour good money after bad? Surely now is the time to put right what we have got wrong, save the money and spend it on areas of the country which badly need their railway networks improved.

I am aware of my noble friend’s position on HS2. It demonstrates that there is a wide range of views. As I said earlier, the Government will update the House as part of their regular six-monthly reports on HS2.

My Lords, about six to nine months ago, the Government said that they would pause all work at Euston. Has that happened? My impression is, as reports I get suggest, that there is a great deal of work going on there. Can the Minister tell us how much work has gone on even after it was paused?

I am not able to give an update on the physical work that is going on. My understanding is that the position at Euston has not changed. Again, that will be in the regular six-monthly update.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. Yesterday, in the Commons, the Minister said:

“The benefits of HS2 for Birmingham are already being realised”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/9/23; col. 1107.]

He is correct. The simple fact is that this is a huge project—a project not about speed but about capacity. If we are to see more people and more freight using our railways, capacity is desperately needed. This project was started 14 years so. We should see it finished and serving the nation.

I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out the enormous benefits that Birmingham is currently seeing. All across the route of phase 1, there are shovels in the ground, with 350 active construction sites and 29,500 workers. The focus is on delivering high-speed rail services between London and Birmingham.

My Lords, will the Minister go further in acknowledging the common-sense view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin? Will she also reflect on the fact that, so far, almost a third of the around 140-mile line between London and Birmingham is either through tunnels or on viaducts? We are spending a vast amount of money trying to please people who oppose the project and who have opposed it right from the start. Is it not about time we took a leaf out of the book of the French railways? At the time they built their high-speed line across France, they said: “When we are draining the swamp, we do not consult the frogs”?

The noble Lord makes a very interesting point. It is right—and this is not only for High Speed 2 but for many major infra- structure projects—that local interests can sometimes cause the cost of projects to increase. I need only mention, for example, Chesham and Amersham, where I think there is a Liberal Democrat Member—and they are deeply behind HS2, apart from any candidate who wins a by-election. Sometimes, to please certain groups of people, additional expense must be had, and sometimes that is absolutely valid. That is the difficulty with building major infrastructure. But the planning permission that goes into it and the DCO process—or in this case the hybrid Bills—have to reach the right balance, and sometimes one has to question whether it is in the right place.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recognise the risks that we are going to run? First, the country will be seen as a laughingstock if we can no longer build a railway. Secondly, the expectations of people in the north and the east Midlands will feel betrayed.

It is very difficult to persuade visitors to this country that Old Oak Common is any part of central London. I hope that we will bear in mind also, despite all that has been said in the argument that has raged over the years, that speed is at the very heart of the human psyche. People want to do things faster than has been done before—and that still exists today.

We are already building a high-speed railway. Phase 1 for HS2 is well under way. We expect services to commence by 2033. Before the noble Lord completely dismisses Old Oak Common, if any of us is alive in 20 or 30 years’ time —I look at myself in this regard—that whole area will look completely different. It is 1,600 acres, and there will be 40,000 homes and 65,000 jobs. That is something that I think we should be proud of.