[David Mundell in the Chair]
Before we begin, I ask Members to adhere as best they can to the social distancing guidance produced by the Government and the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes to email@example.com. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 563380, relating to HS2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The petition that we are debating is entitled “Stop work on HS2 immediately and hold a new vote to repeal the legislation”. For convenience, I shall read the petition into Hansard:
“We ask Parliament to repeal the High Speed Rail Bills, 2016 and 2019, as MPs voted on misleading environmental, financial and timetable information provided by the Dept of Transport and HS2 Ltd. It fails to address the conditions of the Paris Accord and costs have risen from £56bn to over £100bn.”
The petition was open for six months and has gained over 150,000 signatures, 459 of which are from my constituency. As we all know, HS2 has been a topic on the public’s mind since Parliament first voted on it in 2009, and many of us represent constituencies that are deeply divided on the issue.
The construction of vent shafts for HS2 on Adelaide Road and in South Kilburn in my constituency is already causing major disruption to residents in Swiss Cottage and a part of Brent with some of the highest deprivation levels in the country. With the projected cost of HS2 having quintupled since 2010, does my hon. Friend think that the disruption, pollution and environmental damage that will be caused by this project over two decades is worth the £106 billion that it is now likely to cost?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important point, which I will come to.
I have been wrestling with whether the cost of HS2, both economically and environmentally, outweighs its benefits. I represent the west midlands constituency of Coventry North West, where HS2 is projected to add many jobs locally, better connect our cities and bolster the regional economy, and I welcome those benefits. I also applaud any efforts to invest in clean and green public transport infrastructure, such as high-speed rail. Building high-speed rail that connects our country with cutting-edge train technology should be something that we can all rally around.
Does the hon. Lady recall that when HS2 was originally planned, it was going to go not into Curzon Street, but into Birmingham New Street? That would have given her constituency greater connectivity. Moreover, it would have connected with HS1 so that people could travel direct to the continent without changing trains in London. Would not that have been the connectivity that she talks about?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I will come on to connectivity later in my speech. However, I have my own reservations about HS2. As somebody whose constituency contains woodlands at risk of increased pollution from HS2, I harbour concerns about the environmental damage that the railway will bring locally. I therefore intend to use my remaining time to expand on the petitioners’ key contentions, which beg the question: should the Government continue to fund HS2’s construction?
There is no direct advantage for my constituents in Northern Ireland. However, if the Government follow their levelling-up process, suppliers in Northern Ireland should have a chance to feed into the process. Does the hon. Lady agree that, when the Minister replies, there should be a commitment to jobs in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I know he is a champion for his constituents in Northern Ireland.
There are many reasons to be vocal about the benefits of HS2 if it is built as initially promised. In many ways HS2 should be a green and environmentally friendly new railway. It should present an important asset in achieving net zero carbon in the UK, creating an alternative to an emission-heavy mode of transport. By shifting more commuters to rail travel, not only will carbon emissions be 76% lower than those of an internal flight, but it would compete on journey time and cost.
We are starting to move to the nub of the question. First, HS2 was greatly flawed in its initial assumptions about the costs and benefits. The costs have escalated, but, most importantly, covid has brought a dramatic change in demand. At the moment, only 50% or 60% of journeys are made by rail. On inter-city it is probably even less. Does that not fundamentally undermine the case, and is there a need for a reassessment by Ministers? Could we ask the Minister whether he has done that reassessment?
The hon. Lady talks about greening the economy. Is it not the case that HS2 will allow more capacity on the old and virtually full Victorian network so that we can take freight and polluting lorries off the road and on to electric trains on the railways?
That is a contentious point. HS2 would emit seven times less carbon than the equivalent car journey. I would, however, ask the Government whether they plan to adjust that calibration in light of the goal that the UK aims to have all electric vehicles by 2040.
Economically, HS2 could bring benefits, including for my own city of Coventry. Nationwide, an estimated 500,000 jobs and 90,000 new homes have been pledged as part of the HS2 project. Currently, HS2’s construction supports 9,000 new jobs and has created contracts for 2,000 businesses, of which some 1,400 are small and medium-sized enterprises.
Given what we have heard about the clear economic benefits and the additional connectivity and capacity that HS2 will provide, does my hon. Friend share my deep concern that we keep getting reports in the newspapers and elsewhere that the Government are going cold on the HS2 route to Leeds? We have been given a clear commitment. Does she hope, as I do, that the Minister will make it absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to building HS2 in full, including bringing it to Leeds?
My constituent, Darren Bartlett, has been suffering for years after he had to give up his land and business to HS2. For almost three and a half years, HS2 has not made any compensation available to him. He is in a dire financial situation. The HS2 people have refused to have discussions with him, and he is having to remortgage not just his business but his property.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I share many of the concerns about HS2 that she has raised. These concerns were made very clear to me when I joined constituents affected by the project earlier this year and saw the impact of HS2 on them and their local area. In addition to the environmental issues that my hon. Friend has raised, what keeps coming up time and again from constituents is noise pollution. Does she agree that it is long overdue for HS2 to put up noise-cancelling barriers to stop the disruption that is plaguing so many constituents?
Thank you, Mr Mundell, and I will try not to take any more interventions.
The benefits that I have just outlined are dependent on the Government following through on the entire project. As was highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), earlier this summer the Department for Transport directed HS2 to stop all work on the leg linking Birmingham with the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. I know that the Government have made efforts to quell rumours that this leg of HS2 will be scrapped, but they have not issued any outright denial of that possibility.
That certainly brings into doubt some of the predicted economic benefits of constructing HS2. To be clear, the Government’s business case for HS2 depends upon building an entire railway network, not just fragments of HS2 for the favoured few. Failing to build that network would not only break the Government’s promise regarding the returns on HS2, but destroy their promise on levelling up the west midlands and, indeed, the midlands as a whole.
The Government must be clear about which part of HS2 will in fact be constructed, so that MPs have all the facts. As is evidenced by this petition, the potential benefits of HS2 have often been overshadowed by the controversies over how the Government have so far managed this major project. The petition refers to the extraordinary increase in the bill for building HS2. Back in 2009, the projected cost was £37.5 billion. By 2020, that figure had ballooned to £107.7 billion—an increase of 361%—and that hike is before much of the construction has even begun. That is completely unacceptable—how in the world did it even happen?
A review by the National Audit Office concluded that the key reason the price of HS2 skyrocketed was the Government’s failure to estimate accurately how quickly and cheaply they could build HS2 and the constantly changing scope of the project. In many ways, this project has clearly been mismanaged and there are no guarantees that the cost of it will not continue to rise.
Due to the time constraints, I will proceed quickly and then I will give way later on.
As I was saying, there are no guarantees that the cost of this project will not continue to rise and I am deeply concerned that taxpayers will not receive the promised returns on their investment if the cost continues to climb. The taxpayer has already seen a diminished expectation on that return. Indeed, in 2011 the initial economic case presented a benefit-cost ratio for the full train network that was nearly twice the current estimated return. The cost and benefit to the taxpayer must be at the forefront of our minds during this debate.
Separately, there is the very legitimate concern about the cost of constructing HS2, and I will also talk briefly about the cost of using HS2. One of the main reasons why I originally had some hope for the construction of HS2 was the understanding that a high-speed rail link such as HS2 would not only provide better mobility for commuters, but improve social mobility. However, if the only people who are able to take HS2 are the wealthiest among us, I cannot see how it will be used as a tool to boost social mobility—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I sincerely thank my hon. Friend for taking my intervention. I draw Members’ attention to the substantial impact on, and disruption caused to, residents in my constituency by vent shaft works associated with tunnelling under Ealing North. I recently carried out a survey of residents on Carr Road and Badminton Close in Northolt; I would welcome my hon. Friend’s support in asking the Minister to review the results of that survey, and to join me in pushing HS2 to improve its communication with, and accountability to, residents.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important point, which I will come on to.
I am deeply concerned about the environmental destruction that this project is causing to ancient woodland areas. The Woodland Trust estimates that 108 ancient woodland areas are at risk of loss or damage as a result of construction on HS2, and that irreparable damage to an ancient woodland ecosystem and biodiversity cannot be adequately addressed by planting a few saplings over a few years or generations. These environmental concerns alone give me pause for thought.
If HS2 is to be anything close to a success story, it must change course. I am worried that this project will continue with the same mismanagement that has characterised its construction so far, and has increased the projected construction time by about eight years and projected costs by over £60 billion. The same mistakes will continue to plague other phases unless we see change. HS2 Ltd needs to be much better at listening to the communities that it is impacting most, and to take the time to allow contractors to weigh in on what truly works best for local communities.
Finally, I will touch on something larger that is at stake: public trust. When we consider new and ambitious infrastructure projects, the public must trust that the Government will be open, transparent, trustworthy, cost-effective and efficient. With HS2, that has all too often not been the case, and I worry that the public’s diminished faith in Government’s ability to manage such projects effectively will prevent them from supporting positive and ambitious infrastructure projects in future. The end does not always justify the means. I look forward to hearing from the Government how they plan to address the important concerns I have raised, and to hearing the issues of concern to MPs from across the House and their ideas on how to drastically improve the HS2 project.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to speak in this debate. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for bringing it to this Chamber, and I agree with a great many of the concerns that have already been expressed about HS2. For what it is worth, I always argued that the line should follow existing transport corridors; that would have done a lot less environmental damage.
Ever since legislative authority was given for the line as it stands, I am afraid that HS2 Ltd has too often—there are a few individual exceptions—acted in a thoughtless and high-handed way, failing to communicate effectively about the nature of its works and the road closures and other disruption that they cause. As we have heard, HS2’s budget has risen dramatically, seemingly without anyone being held to account for it, yet in so many of the compensation cases I have dealt with, every penny claimed by vulnerable people whose lives have been ruined by the line has been fiercely contested.
I welcome the appointment of a dedicated HS2 Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has been doing a good job of getting to grips with these issues. However, he will agree that there is much more to do, and much more of the construction phase to go. HS2 Ltd and its contractors have to work much harder on talking to and listening to local residents who are affected by their work, and they and my hon. Friend need to do more to answer legitimate challenges on compliance with environmental standards, and about what was known when about cost overrun.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) outlined the criteria of honesty, transparency, value for money and openness. Has HS2 not failed the test on all those things? The rocketing costs make people feel like they are on a runaway train that has not even had the opportunity to get out of the station. This is a mess, and it must be fixed.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is incumbent on everybody involved in the project, including the Government, to make improvements in those respects, and we must expect that to happen.
As we have discussed, there is much to criticise HS2 for, but this petition does not ask us to criticise HS2—it asks us to cancel it. It seems to me that we should not be making a judgment based entirely on frustration, considerable though it may be. The reality is that legislative authority for HS2 has already been given, and this debate does not provide a mechanism to reverse it. Even if it did, given the amount already spent and the work already done on phase 1, it is likely that any cancellation decision now would be to cancel phase 2 of the line—not phase 1, which passes through my constituency and others. That would leave us with a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, with all the inconvenience caused to my constituents to build it, but not a wider network. The positive case for a wider network can be made, but the positive case for a new London-to-Birmingham line cannot. Stopping after phase 1 seems to me to be almost the worst-case scenario for my constituents, and I cannot support it.
If HS2 is to proceed, the Minister will need to assure us that it will be delivered with more efficiency, flexibility and consideration for the people impacted by it than we have largely seen so far.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing forward today’s debate, and the 311 constituents of mine who have petitioned. The Government need to get a grip of this project; that has come over loud and clear in the debate so far, and that point will no doubt be echoed in the next hour or so.
We are in the midst of not only a climate emergency, but an environmental emergency. We cannot plough lines through the middle of these cathedrals of nature, while avoiding wonderful cathedrals such as that in the destination city that HS2 is meant to arrive at some time in the future—we know not when. The paths these lines take should be integrated with the rest of the rail network.
I agree that the sequencing of this project needs to be re-examined, because we need interconnectivity, and we need it mapped on to the rest of our rail system.
I want to focus on the impact the plans are having on the economy of York. In Crewe, we are talking about 36,000 jobs, and in Curzon Street, 37,000, yet in York there will be just 6,500 jobs, in areas adjacent to the rail system—on Network Rail land, which comes under the Minister’s Department. The question I want answered today is: why is the economic opportunity of HS2, which the Minister has espoused, not translating into reality? Network Rail will redevelop that land for luxury apartments—not for anybody in my constituency to live in, but so that people can commute down to London, sucking out the wealth from my constituency. It does not make economic sense. It does not make sense for transport, and it comes at a cost to our environment. Therefore, the project needs to re-examine its purpose.
The Minister has a responsibility to ensure that jobs come to my city. There is no point talking about spending all this money if it is not going to drive up the opportunity for my constituents, so I ask the Minister to take a look at the figures. We see that 2,500 housing units are to be built adjacent to the station. My constituents simply cannot afford them because of the high cost of living. It does not make sense to push out those job opportunities while saying that they are the whole purpose of the railway. I have to say to the Minister that in the light of HS2’s economic suction from the north and my constituency, and its environmental impact, he has not yet presented a case that stacks up, and that says that HS2 will benefit places such as York. I ask him to look at that again.
Finally, if we are looking at truly levelling up, we have to look at all the opportunities for interconnectivity. In the north we need to see Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and York as part of the rail network, and have proper integration and speeds, and that simply is not happening. The east-west route is far too slow and costly for my constituents to really benefit from. We have to see connectivity across the network before this project proceeds, not least because we know that people have changed the way that they are moving about our country. At this time, we need to ensure that we are investing in things that will increase our productivity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I stand with the petitioners calling for HS2 to be scrapped—first, on cost grounds. At a time when the state is reaching deeper into people’s pockets, it is obscene to keep throwing money into this unwanted project. The latest estimate for the total cost is £146 billion; that is 10 times the original estimate.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention; he has read my mind—this is a point that I will come to shortly. The National Audit Office has noted that 50% of the costs for phase 1 are still based on HS2 Ltd’s estimates, consultant designs and benchmarking information, rather than actual costs—real pounds and pence—agreed with industry. Therefore, the overall cost could clearly rise again. HS2’s own revised cost estimates assume that it will be able to find £2.8 billion of savings, yet there has already been a substantial dip into its contingency budgets. We all know that the case for HS2 was ropey to start with; some estimated a 66p return for every taxpayer pound spent. If rumours of the eastern leg being scrapped are true, that must make the business case utterly untenable.
As my right hon. Friend says, there is also the aftermath of covid. The Transport Committee heard last year that rail passenger numbers are unlikely to recover to more than three quarters of 2019 levels—other estimates have it as low as 47%. The pandemic, and new working patterns, should surely allow for fresh eyes to look at High Speed 2.
I fear that the cat was somewhat let out of the bag by Douglas Oakervee, who, at the Transport for the North annual conference last year, was quoted as saying,
“The construction industry was in a very fragile position”.
He went on to justify his recommendation as a way of preventing harm to the construction industry. That is a purely unacceptable rationale.
This leads me to the environmental destruction. Hedgerows, trees and nature reserves, such as Calvert Jubilee in my constituency—destroyed. Water quality and wildlife are being put at risk; environmental standards that were agreed are now not being met, as has been well documented by the Chilterns Conservation Board and the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. Now, in my constituency, we have uncovered evidence of limestone being applied to land taken, rendering it useless for any future agricultural use. No prizes for guessing what the endgame is there; there is more to this gravy train than just the train.
Worst of all, HS2 brings real human misery to my constituents, and constituents up and down the line of route. This is through the endless road closures; the destruction of local rural roads, which are in conditions that are not safe to travel on; the grossly unfair way that landowners and farmers are treated; and people being left in a state of severe stress and anxiety by not knowing what will happen to their land, homes and businesses—not for days and weeks, but for months and years. I am devastated to tell this House that, from among the hundreds of people in this state of stress and anxiety, there have now been cases of people suffering heart attacks and losing their life, which I fear is not a coincidence.
Let us look at the reality. Let us call time on HS2 right now, ending this waste of money and this destructive project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. My constituents have made no secret of how important this issue is to them. That is why it does not surprise me that so many residents of Chesham and Amersham put their name to this petition. I join their plea to stop HS2 and put on record my opposition to it.
I have had hundreds of emails about this debate, as well as various emails and meetings in which specific concerns have been raised about the construction now taking place. I could fill the time available to us by listing those concerns, but I will resist. What many locally hoped would not happen is now happening. As far as they are concerned, it is happening to them, which is why it does not surprise me that the highest number of signatories to the petition are from Chesham and Amersham.
From the daily correspondence that I receive on this issue, what strikes me is the persistent lack of trust in HS2 Ltd, which is openly acknowledged by the team at HS2. They have assured me more than once that they are working hard to address that with the local community, but we have been here before. Five years ago, in December 2016, a special report by a House of Lords Select Committee highlighted its concerns about community engagement. Three years later, the Oakervee review said something similar. I therefore ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that he is seeing enough improvement in this area from HS2 Ltd. The lack of trust is inevitably compounded by the day-to-day reality of the largest infrastructure project in Europe happening on our doorstep. Let us not forget that those affected have years of this to look forward to—a decade of debilitating disruption.
I will finish by discussing the real fears for the aquifer and water supply. The Minister will be aware of concerns about the use of bentonite. Indeed, my predecessor asked in July 2018 whether there was a plan to use bentonite under pressure when tunnelling under the Chilterns. The reply she received from the Minister at the time was that
“Bentonite will be used in the construction of the diaphragm walls for the 5 intermediate shafts. Prior to the use of bentonite in these locations the construction methodology dictates that the ground surrounding the diaphragm walls will be grouted, therefore sealing and protecting the ground water from the bentonite.”
However, the Minister will know that it has come to light that, during diaphragm wall excavation at the Chalfont St Peter vent shaft late last year, there was a significant loss of bentonite. There is a clear correlation between that loss and changes in water quality in the area. HS2 Ltd chose not to share this information with the community; we know about it only because of a freedom of information request that was submitted to the Environment Agency.
The last thing that local campaigners want to say is, “I told you so”, so I ask the Minister whether he will come and hear from residents, whose fears for our water supply are real and have not been allayed by the assurances that they have received to date. Given the repeated calls for increased transparency and openness over the years, I ask the Minister to come and meet some of my constituents and decide for himself whether HS2 Ltd’s commitment to openness and transparency is being fulfilled.
I have always voted against HS2, from its inception. My constituents have agreed with me, and I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) in this debate. I have yet to see any objective report supporting HS2, and it has been put on red watch by the Government’s economic advisers. HS2 Ltd has continued to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as it takes a wrecking ball to some of our most beautiful countryside and woodlands and devastates communities. The voters of Chesham and Amersham let the Government know how they felt in no uncertain terms, and they are not alone.
HS2 Ltd seems to have learned nothing about respecting the knowledge of local people. The company has repeatedly treated my constituents with contempt and refused to engage in meaningful consultation, paying lip service by planting a few new trees, putting in footpaths and holding glossy events. When HS2 Ltd has met communities, it has stubbornly refused to listen, and when technically challenged on its responses, it has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal its engineering weaknesses. HS2 Ltd must admit the lack of engineering feasibility that this represents.
HS2 should also listen to the massive advantages presented by the professional and forensic analysis from my constituents, which has been made available to the Government. It would reduce dramatically the impact on Staffordshire, North Shropshire and Cheshire during the construction of phases 2a and 2b, deliver a valuable engineering asset that could build and maintain the western leg of HS2, and save the taxpayer approximately £600 million from the HS2 budget, which could be reinvested—please note, Treasury—in local rail projects that would transform rail connectivity across the north and through the midlands to the east coast, and provide the economic boost that those parts of the country richly deserve, including the levelling-up agenda.
I have absolutely no doubt that HS2 is a disastrous white elephant, but there are other opportunities and means whereby the Minister can change course. I strongly recommend that he does.
The arguments put forward against HS2 are very similar to those put forward by the stagecoach owners against the original investment in the railway system. That is relevant to this debate because one of our problems is that, although the stagecoach owners did not win the argument 200 years ago, over the years equivalent arguments have stopped investment in infrastructure in this country. We have the lowest motorway density in what used to be called western Europe. We are still relying on the railway system that the Victorians built for us, and because it is inadequate we have more cars on congested motorways, creating pollution and potentially many collisions.
My constituents and most of northern England have supported HS2 because of the economic benefits that it brings. In fact, I do not believe it is ambitious enough. In place of HS2 trains being put on the current railway lines to go to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scottish and northern MPs should be demanding that HS2 goes directly to Scotland and be joined, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) said, by HS1. That was part of the original plan. We have not been ambitious enough in our investment in infrastructure in the past and currently.
Before I finish, I want to deal with two or three of the arguments that have been put forward. The most absurd is the covid argument. This project will last 100 years—or perhaps 200 years, like the current railway system. Hopefully, covid will be over much more quickly than that—over the next six to 12 months—and we will get back to a normal economy and transport system.
It is often counterposed that the Liverpool-Hull railway, or HS3—it has been called many things—should be given priority over HS2. Both are required. One will feed into the other. If passengers are dispersed off HS2, they will need to go on to a line with capacity between Liverpool and Hull, and vice versa; we need to feed into that position.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that this is about freight? We can only expect freight movements to increase, and we want them to get off the roads and on to the railway. That will be possible only if we create the extra capacity that HS2 will give us.
My hon. Friend is right, of course, and she has expertise as a previous Chair of the Transport Committee. HS2 frees up capacity, not only for passengers but for freight. That will take pollution off our motorways in all sorts of ways.
I am opposed to this petition. It will not have any impact. It allows MPs to voice their constituents’ concern, but an expanded HS2 is important for the future of this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am very grateful to the Petitions Committee for securing this debate, because HS2 is undoubtedly the single biggest issue in my constituency of Aylesbury. Indeed, 2,999 petitioners are from my constituency—it is second only to Chesham and Amersham—and I have received more than 400 emails asking me to speak today.
I completely share the views of the vast majority of residents across the Aylesbury constituency that HS2 should be scrapped. As I stated at the beginning of my own election campaign, I do not believe that we need this railway. It makes no sense economically, owing to a weak business case and dramatically escalating construction costs. It makes no sense environmentally, with more than 100 ancient woodlands being destroyed for a line that will never be carbon neutral over its 120-year lifespan. I remain absolutely convinced that the scheme will do enormous damage to our area with zero benefit for the people of Aylesbury and the nearby villages.
Let us take some examples. The residents of Stoke Mandeville and Fairford Leys are already impacted by the construction work that is under way. Aylesbury itself is at risk of flooding owing to some of the methods that HS2 Ltd insists on using, despite repeated pleas to do more to alleviate the peril. Indeed, a recent FOI inquiry revealed an alarming lack of detailed knowledge of the impact on the aquifer of HS2’s construction.
The popular and beautiful village of Wendover
“will be more directly affected by the first phase of the HS2 project than any rural settlement of comparable size.”
Those are not my words. That is a direct quote from the House of Lords Select Committee. One key way to mitigate the horrendous consequences of HS2 for Wendover would be the construction of bored, mined tunnel. Time and again, local residents have provided compelling evidence of the case for such a tunnel, but time and again they have been told they cannot have it, so they have asked for a full, thorough and independent analysis of their proposal versus the one in the consented scheme. Even for that, they have again been told no. It is hardly surprising that they are up in arms.
Of course, we should not need a tunnel in Wendover because we should not have HS2 at all. There are so many things the HS2 budget could be better spent on. I have three suggestions. Local train lines—across the north of England and indeed in my constituency, notably the Aylesbury link of East West Rail, which has a better business case than HS2—would dramatically cut traffic congestion on the roads and reduce environmental harm, but we are still waiting for funding approval.
We could use the money for high-speed broadband, which would enable the new ways of working that are now becoming embedded following the pandemic. Parts of my constituency still struggle to get wi-fi despite being less than 50 miles from central London. Indeed, we could just save some of the huge bill, given the hundreds of billions of pounds we have had to borrow in the past 18 months. Any of those options would be much better for my constituency and for the country than this painful, lumbering white-elephant project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell.
The Government’s response to the petition states that HS2 will be the
“long-lasting legacy for both wildlife and future generations.”
Well yes, it certainly will—a long-lasting legacy of environmental annihilation, eye-watering expense and broken promises.
I want to focus on the environmental harm of HS2, and I would point out that almost 600 Brighton constituents have signed the petition. If a convincing case for a new railway cannot be made on environmental grounds, that shows how fundamentally flawed the scheme must be. We face a climate and ecological emergency, and we need to start acting like we face such an emergency. Only if there are overwhelmingly positive environmental cases for HS2 should it go ahead. Clearly, there are not. However, there are, as we have heard this evening, many genuinely greener alternatives in which such large sums of money could and should be invested within the UK’s transport system. Let me give one more example: the New Economics Foundation estimates that a national rail investment fund of £55.2 billion over the next 10 years—just over half the cost of HS2—including £18.9 billion allocated to the north of England, would help commuters, speed up long-distance journeys, cut carbon emissions and bring benefits to many regions that are not even served by HS2.
On nature, the Government response to the petition says that there will be
“‘no net loss’ to biodiversity”.
Well, even if that were meaningful or credible—frankly, it is neither—it is utterly inadequate. The wildlife trusts have highlighted the fact that ancient woodland is
“by its very nature irreplaceable”,
so an ancient wood that is lost to HS2 is a permanent loss of nature and wildlife, yet 15 hectares of ancient woodland over 400 years old have already been obliterated. It speaks volumes that HS2 keeps no record of the number of trees felled. Can the Minister provide the figure for trees felled? I think that would be interesting.
Finally, on climate, the response by the Department for Transport to the petition claims that HS2
“will play a vital role in delivering the Government’s carbon net zero objectives”,
yet HS2’s own forecasts, even over 120 years, show the project will cause carbon emissions of 1.49 million tonnes. Achieving our climate goals means rapidly decarbonising the transport system, and protecting and restoring habitats such as woodland. HS2 does neither. Frankly, the way in which these decisions are being made does no justice to the seriousness of the situation, given what is at stake with environmental harm. The experience of HS2 shows that we need to change fundamentally our approach to economic decision making and to the criteria for major infrastructure projects. We urgently need to give top priority to the health and wellbeing of people and nature. It is time to stop annihilating nature in the name of short-term financial gain for some rather big construction corporations and the pursuit of infinite economic growth on our finite and fragile planet. The petitioners are right: HS2 should be scrapped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. When I became a candidate for Crewe and Nantwich in 2018, one of the big decisions for me was whether or not I supported HS2. It was not well-paid lobbyists or Government or business interests that convinced me of my position but knocking on doors and speaking to dozens of local men and women who worked on the local railways and told me how vital this project was. Although I recognise many of the concerns raised by Members, and I hope that HS2 representatives are listening to them, I support the project.
Crewe has a proud and close relationship with this country’s railways. It was a village until the locomotive works and the railway station were founded in the 1830s. It built on that industrial heritage to forge a new future as a home for a wide variety of businesses, but with the railway remaining at its heart. That future is at risk if we cannot deliver locally and improve links via the railway.
Members have raised the issue of reduced capacity as a result of covid. It is important to note that some travel routes are already back up to 70% of pre-pandemic levels. It would be unwise to make major, decades-long decisions about transport in this country on the basis of less than a few years of travel patterns, which I fully expect to return to normal.
I think that the west coast main line will return to being the busiest mixed-use railway line in Europe. For my local residents and businesses, that means no capacity for freight, congested timetables and fewer smaller local journeys, because inter-city journeys take priority. The answer for some is to just upgrade what we have, but I remind everybody that the last time we did that we faced similar cost overruns and delays to those currently being experienced by HS2. I have said before in the House that I do not think that arguments about our ability to deliver big infrastructure are valid. We have to become better at doing infrastructure. As we deliver projects, we have to listen to MPs in order to improve them. We should not say no. If we stand still, we are certainly not going to deliver or improve our local infrastructure.
I understand the concerns. I also want to flag up the context of the money we are spending. It is a lot of money but let us keep in mind that we already plan to spend £6 billion a year maintaining and making much smaller upgrades across the railway network, and £40 billion over the next five years on projects other than HS2. In the context of those figures, it is naive to think that we can build a major new railway line without substantial forms of public investment. Are we really saying that this country is never going to build a big, major new railway line? I do not think that that is wise or that it reflects the ambition in my part of the UK, all of the north and the rest of the country—an ambition that HS2 helps to deliver.
The Government talk about levelling up, and there can be few more glaring examples of regional inequality, and few where the role of central Government is critical, than our rail infrastructure. That is why I have been campaigning for some time for greater connectivity to and between major northern cities via the east coast main line, but HS2 matters, too, particularly the eastern leg. If the Government are serious about investing in the north, they must build and integrate all phases of HS2, along with Northern Powerhouse Rail, and deliver major upgrades to the east coast main line.
I know from some of the emails that I received before this debate that many people want HS2 to be scrapped, and for investment in local rail links in the north to be prioritised instead. I understand those concerns, and we absolutely need to correct the chronic under-investment in the north-east transport network, but it should not be an either/or proposition.
Nobody would argue that London should have only one major infrastructure project at any one time, and neither should that be the case for the north. Moreover, as hon. Members have said, the primary purpose of HS2 is to free up capacity on existing lines. Without it, we will struggle to improve local commuter and freight services. Our existing lines struggled to keep up with pre-pandemic levels of demand, and they will not be able to accommodate more or longer trains. We need a significant, coherent programme of rail infrastructure improvement across the north of England. That includes delivering HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full and improvements to existing lines, particularly the east coast main line. If the Government’s intention is simply to build 21st-century rail links between London and Birmingham while passengers and businesses in the north are left behind, it will make a mockery of levelling up. I hope the Minister will reassure us today that that is not his intention.
I return to the need for investment in the east coast main line. If the eastern leg of HS2 goes ahead—I hope it does—it will deliver a continuous new high-speed railway between London and the midlands, and a junction with the east coast main line in North Yorkshire. However, from that point on it is envisaged that HS2 trains will travel on the existing east coast main line to serve the north-east and beyond. The line carried 50 million passengers each year before the pandemic. It is used for long-distance, regional and local passenger and freight services, but it has just two tracks, suffers from chronic capacity issues, affects the reliability of existing services and stymies the potential to add further services.
The single congested track between Northallerton and Newcastle is one of the worst examples of capacity problems on the east coast main line. After decades of underinvestment and a failed, piecemeal approach to rail infrastructure in the north, the Government have an opportunity to invest in capacity and connectivity, attract investment and truly boost the north by delivering HS2, NPR and east coast upgrades.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
I start by saying that the time allocated to the debate today is woefully short. That adds to the public’s sense that people are not listening to them, that they are being silenced and that the Government do not want to listen to opposition to HS2. Nearly 2,000 people in Tatton signed the petition and I stand squarely with them and the other thousands of people to say, “Stop HS2.” Later, I will give a reason why a vote needs to be held again in the House of Commons.
I would like to mention a few groups and people from Tatton because they have worked tirelessly to unearth the failings of HS2. They are Ashley Parish Council; Lach Dennis and Lostock Green Parish Council; Mid Cheshire Against HS2; Kathy O’Donoghue; and Ros Todhunter for her technical expertise.
Many colleagues have talked about the failings and there is not just one failing, but many. Indeed, the more we look into the project, the worse it gets, from its ballooning costs to the destruction of land and countryside, to its being out of date. We need high-speed broadband —1 gigabit capability—which would connect everyone, everywhere, not HS2.
Let us talk about the cost. It was £37.5 billion. It is now £150 billion. A scheme might be viable at £37.5 billion and perhaps even at £50 billion, but when does it become unviable? Are the Government saying that they will pay for it whatever the cost? I bring up the very serious point that Lord Berkeley made in the other place on 9 September. He said that he had
“received from senior managers in HS2 —I think you can call them whistleblowers”
information. They had
“produced a detailed estimate of this project from the beginning.”
That was news to him because:
“They had always denied that…but they have an estimate and the problem is that it came out at £48 billion, at a time when Ministers were telling the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House that the cost was £23.5 billion. It was on the basis of that £23.5 billion the House approved phase 1 of the HS2 Bill.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 September 2021; Vol. 814, c. 980.]
If that is the case and we were given misinformation, is not it right that the vote needs to held—and heard—again?
I have some final questions in the time I have. What is the cost of cancelling the scheme? On what is that estimate based? On what measurements does HS2 level up the north? Can we look at that serious allegation in the House of Lords and, if it is true, have another vote?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
More than 155,000 people have signed the petition that we are discussing, including around 200 of my constituents. Some have written to me directly, raising their concerns about the spiralling costs of HS2 and its impact on the environment and climate emergency. I share their concerns.
As Members have observed, travel patterns have changed significantly over the course of the pandemic and businesses have adapted to new ways of connecting over the internet. With more people working remotely, it is important that the Government revisit the arguments that were originally put forward for HS2. I ask hon. Members who argue strongly against this to reflect on the opportunities that the internet offers to businesses in how they operate going forward, and on the generations coming through who are so adept at using those technologies and developing them.
If the Government wish to encourage greater use of rail by passengers, they should act on the high costs of train tickets, particularly at peak times, which are frankly prohibitive.
In response to a written question that I tabled to the Minister in May this year, the Minister said:
“There is significant uncertainty around how travel patterns will change post-Covid.”
He also said the Government has
“not yet completed modelling the sensitivity of its major project business cases to post-COVID demand.”
Will the Minister update us on what the Government are doing to understand shifts in business behaviour and their impact on the case for HS2?
As we prepare to host COP26, the UK should be leading the way in the fight against climate change. In May 2019, this House declared an environment and climate emergency and called on Ministers to outline urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment, yet there has been no route-wide environmental impact assessment for HS2. As has been mentioned, the Woodland Trust has pointed out that 108 ancient woodlands are at risk of loss or damage as a result of the project. The Government should take urgent action to understand the environmental impact of HS2 across the whole route.
Finally, I turn to the management of the project. In its 2020-21 annual report, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave phase 1, the London to west midlands section, an amber/red rating, meaning that
“Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas.”
It gave phase 2b of HS2, which would extend the line to Manchester and Leeds, a red rating, meaning that
“Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.”
It is clear that High Speed 2, the Government’s flagship national transport project, is in chaos.
The climate crisis is real, it is here, and it is with us. The financial costs of the project have spiralled and work patterns are changing. I urge the Minister to give very serious attention to these most pressing concerns, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
This project first came to my attention back in 2009, when my party manifesto pledged to consult on this massive white elephant seemingly to make up for rejecting a third runway at Heathrow. As a new Back Bencher back in 2011, I led a debate begging the Government to look again at the economic case for the project then.
HS2’s heroic forecasting of up to 4% year-on-year passenger growth was, even then, undermined by the experience of HS1, which had achieved less than half its forecast. The economic case for HS2 had assumed that all time spent on a train was wasted, so a 20-minute time saving between Birmingham and London could account for huge economic gain. The green credentials of HS2 assumed that the power required to run it would be 100% generated through renewable sources. At the time, the cost was forecast to be £32 billion, with HS2 opening by 2026.
So, where are we now? Train passenger increases bottomed out long before covid and everybody can now work on a train using wi-fi. Government figures show the costs of the project have risen exponentially to well over £100 billion. Here we are in 2021, with enabling work only just begun.
The High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act—the paving legislation—received Royal Assent in November 2013, effectively giving HS2 a blank cheque. I was one of the 38 Members who voted against it. Then we set up a compensation and mitigation forum, with a number of MPs who were determined to protect their constituencies. At the time, we were all promised that no expense would be spared to ensure that our communities and countryside were looked after. Well, how wrong that proved to be.
The toll on lives and livelihoods has been massive. Andy, Ben, Murray and Anne in Radstone have had to battle for years to get HS2 to confirm what was agreed in writing during the hybrid Bill: a proper sound barrier to protect their village and a lowering of the line. Five years later these issues are still outstanding. Pauline and Doug’s successful holiday business was shut down by HS2 taking their land. Four years later, they are still awaiting compensation. They are stuck in their old home and have no income. The beautiful village of Chipping Warden is now surrounded by construction materials that HS2 has just dumped in this lovely countryside.
For me as an MP, dealing with what can only be described as the appalling treatment of my constituents by HS2 has taken on average 25% of my time since 2010, and it has caused real mental health issues for hundreds of local people. My hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for HS2, is working very hard to help, but I will just say it straight: HS2 is an appalling waste of money and I am ashamed of the way that it is being implemented. We need a fresh vote.
HS2 is probably the most poorly explained and poorly understood policy in our national discourse. Over the past decade, a series of myths have been perpetuated about it, by a combination of muddled thinking and the efforts of well-funded self-interest groups. I therefore welcome this opportunity to address some of those myths head-on.
First, despite its name, HS2 has never been simply about shaving 30 minutes off journey times down to London. It has always been about tackling the capacity challenge on the country’s most important strategic railway, the west coast main line. If we were to cancel HS2 and do nothing, within a few years this most vital artery of our entire national railway network would quite simply grind to a halt, causing huge damage to our economy, especially in the north and midlands.
I have seen many people claim that the internet and remote working will take care of this problem all by itself, ignoring the fact that—excluding the period of the pandemic—rail passenger figures have gone up in every single year since the internet was invented. They also ignore the issue of rail freight. I am all for harnessing technology, but with the best will in the world we cannot deliver millions of tonnes of goods via Zoom. We are already seeing the consequences of being overly reliant on road haulage, with the problems being caused by the shortage of continental HGV drivers. A failure to invest in our rail freight capacity would only make this situation worse.
Secondly, let us examine the cost of HS2 and let us give the anti-HS2 lobby the benefit of the doubt, taking their absolute worst-case scenarios on both costings and completion date at face value. Doing that, we would be looking at spending just over £5 billion a year; to provide some context, that is about half of what we spend on overseas aid. It is a lot of money, but investing around 0.25% of our GDP every year for a limited period to fix the most important railway network in our country is hardly disproportionate.
Thirdly, perhaps the most common argument against HS2 is that we should prioritise fixing existing commuter rail services instead, which is an argument that buys into a completely false-choice narrative. After all, London was not forced to choose between Crossrail and Thameslink; the north and the midlands should not be forced to make a choice, either. This argument also completely misses the point of HS2, which is to free up capacity on existing commuter lines and enable other transport improvements, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. When the Transport Committee visited Birmingham, we heard very compelling evidence from Andy Street that HS2 also allows improvements such as the midlands rail hub.
My constituency is a good example of this situation. I have two railway lines, which have very limited capacity, that run through one of the busiest corridors in the country—Stockport to Manchester. HS2 would free up that capacity and allow for significant improvement in rail services for places such as Buxton, New Mills, Chinley and Whaley Bridge.
Finally, and most erroneously, a myth has developed that HS2 will be bad for the environment. If people are serious about tackling climate change and decarbonising the economy, I cannot see how they can credibly oppose HS2, a project specifically designed to reduce our reliance on domestic flights and to get cars and HGVs off our roads, shifting people and freight from a high-carbon form of transport to a low-carbon one.
In conclusion, therefore, completing HS2 is good for jobs, good for the economy, good for public transport and good for tackling climate change. It is vital that we keep HS2 on track.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Mundell; I am conscious of the time.
I stand here in Westminster Hall today to oppose HS2, as I have opposed it ever since being elected. Over 700 of my constituents signed the petition. And I was actually joined at one of my street surgeries just last Friday by Sandra Haith, a stalwart member of the Bramley anti-HS2 group. She gave me another petition that was signed by 8,000 constituents a couple of years ago. In Rother Valley, a northern seat and a seat that the Government want to level up, we say that we do not want HS2.
I want to challenge this fallacy that HS2 is involved with levelling up. It is quite the opposite: HS2 takes money and resources away from levelling up. I say that HS2—I am particularly talking about the 2b arm that runs roughshod through my constituency, destroying 400 homes—damages the levelling-up process. Why is that? First of all, we have heard about £150 billion. What my constituency could do with £15 million would be transformative. Give us some of that; do not give us a rail line that we cannot get on to. That money is what we need.
On top of that, we have talked about the trans-Pennine route here today; that is what we need. But what I hear from suppliers and construction companies is that there are not enough resources. There is not enough concrete; there are not enough tradesmen at the moment actually to build anything else. That is because HS2 is this gaping maw that is sucking in resources, sucking in money and sucking in everything, but not actually delivering anything. That undermines the whole concept of levelling up, so I say to the Government: we need to stop HS2 and the 2b arm.
If newspaper reports are to be believed, the 2b arm will be scrapped. I welcome that and I hope the Minister will confirm that. Hundreds of my constituents, whose homes are being destroyed or compulsorily purchased, are being left in limbo. They do not know what is going on. We cannot just mothball it. We need to cancel it so that they can get on with their lives.
I have one more point: we are destroying 400 homes in the Rother Valley. At the same time, Rotherham council is building new homes on the green belt, which is ridiculous. We are destroying the homes that we have and building on the green belt to make up for the loss. The HS2 project is a disaster, and 2b needs to be fully cancelled.
It is strange but indeed a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. The debate has been excellent, with impassioned contributions from both sides, although clearly skewed to one side of the debate. I do not have much time to reflect on many of the speeches, but I will single out the Transport Committee face-off between my colleagues on the Committee, the hon. Members for High Peak (Robert Largan) and for Buckingham (Greg Smith). I am sure it will be discussed tomorrow in Committee.
That it took the UK so long to reinvest in rail after decades of de-investment and line closures and to attempt to offer a much more realistic alternative to domestic flying is to be regretted. In fact, there is an argument to be made that, given the changed working practices born out of the covid pandemic, HS2 is perhaps already too late. However, in principle we remain in favour of high-speed rail, with the Scottish Government recognising the economic benefit that a well-planned and well-delivered project could bring.
I have already halved my speech. We would also look to eventually have high-speed rail all the way to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Will the Minister tell us by what year high-speed rail will be delivered to the border? The Scottish Secretary could not answer that question last week. As an England-only project, HS2 falls within the remit of the UK Government with oversight by English MPs. The SNP does not usually attempt to interfere in devolved decision making for England unless there are budget implications for Scotland.
Although we support the principle, it is fair to say that the HS2 project has now regressed and become short-sighted. It does not place proper emphasis on connectivity across these islands. The fact that there is no discussion to link up to Wales directly and not even giving the Welsh Assembly any Barnett consequentials is shameful. As an England-only national infrastructure project, HS2 delivers spending consequentials to Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that that will continue to be the case to enable the Scottish Government to continue to build the carbon neutral transport infrastructure for Scotland? As the cost of HS2 continues to increase, UK Ministers must make sure that all devolved nations are not left out of pocket because of their decision to spend so much on one project in England.
We are also not oblivious to the environmental issues that many of us, even Scottish MPs, have been inundated with. It is important that any work on HS2 takes into consideration the wider environmental impact. As we have heard from many Members this evening, that certainly has not been the case thus far. The Scottish Government are of course looking to decarbonise Scotland’s transport network through decarbonising rail and investing in green buses and public transport. Scotland’s electrification scheme is an ongoing exemplar to the rest of the islands, particularly the DFT, which has electrified lines at half the pace of the Scottish Government over the past 20 years or so.
We are beginning the process of bringing ScotRail into public ownership to create a network that works for the people of Scotland and not just private profit. Scotland and the other devolved Administrations have robust processes for identifying investment priorities, each setting their own strategies and priorities for transport. Transport infrastructure, as you know, Mr Mundell, is devolved. Decisions on investment were taken by the Scottish Government through an infrastructure investment plan and the second strategic transport projects review. It will consider infrastructure proposals that are founded on robust evidence and that support the vision and outcomes of that strategy and meet the needs of the people and businesses of Scotland, not the political whimsy of the Prime Minister, whose track record in this area is nothing short of calamitous.
The Minister has said previously, and will no doubt say again today, that HS2’s connectivity will benefit the whole UK, so it is therefore important to make my final point—I know you would not agree with it, Mr Mundell, but you are an impartial Chair today. The Union connectivity review was established without any meaningful discussion with the devolved Administrations, and it undermines devolution. The UK Government are now threatening to withhold funding to Scotland unless the Scottish Government sign up to the review, which was carried out without Scottish Government input. That shows that the review is not about collaboration, but about the UK Government inserting themselves into devolved areas of government. The UK Government must respect the devolution settlement and stop undermining it for the single purpose of being able to put Union Jacks on Scottish projects.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to hon. Members for speaking so passionately and eloquently about what can be a very divisive and emotive issue for our constituents. Hon. Members have put forward their well-considered views on what is such an important topic for the future of our transport system, and I know that people who have signed the petition have important concerns that must be addressed. Although I believe that HS2 should continue to be built, and built in full, I feel that the Government have failed to address such concerns adequately.
The debate comes at a very important time for the HS2 project. A year ago today, formal construction on the project began—building from London to Birmingham, rather than starting from the north, as Labour advocated. In that time, HS2 has launched two giant tunnel-boring machines, provided 20,000 jobs and done much more besides. It has taken over a decade to get to this point. Back in 2009, a Labour Government announced the birth of the project in the face of growing rail usage by passengers and freight, which was caused by:
“Passenger choice, better rail services, road congestion and environmental factors”.
The project aimed to cut journey times and, crucially, increase capacity substantially.
Until recently, that remained unchanged. Between June 2018 and June 2019, the number of passenger journeys reached a staggering 1.77 billion. As home working became the norm, questions naturally arose around HS2, as hon. Members have highlighted. One of the main critiques from the petition is the substantial impact of the pandemic. There is no denying that the past 18 months have had a substantial impact. At its lowest last year, the level of rail usage dipped to a mere 4% of the norm. As people tentatively return to offices, many have chosen to drive rather than use our railways, with train commuting at just 33% of 2019 levels. However, the answer is not to give up, end construction and abandon the progress that HS2 could make on decarbonising billions of passenger and freight miles.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman received the 85 megabytes of documentation from whistleblowers within HS2 and the Department for Transport, which indicated that phase 1 is now unlikely to be open for passengers before 2041 and that the whole project is going to be £160 billion in today’s money. Phase 1 is already £70 billion, and the enabling works are running massively over budget. They are being suppressed, and that is going to be thrown into the main budget at the end.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has supported the point that I have made thus far and will continue to make in my speech—namely, that the Government do not have a grip on the project. It is right that the opinions of whistleblowers and others in our communities are taken into account, because we cannot have ballooning costs and we must ensure that the project is delivered in full but also within budget.
As I was saying, we cannot abandon the progress that HS2 could make on decarbonising billions of passenger miles and, as hon. Members have pointed out, freight miles. We cannot reverse the construction progress made or the jobs created. It is about making our railways work better for passengers. It means committing to HS2 in full, including the eastern leg to Leeds. I know that people feel passionately about that, especially in the east midlands and the north, including those to whom I have spoken in and around Leeds. It is about ensuring connectivity for onward travel at HS2 stations, whether that is bus stops, taxi ranks or park and ride. It is about making flexible season tickets actually flexible, reducing delays, improving our rolling stock and guaranteeing that it is modern, clean and accessible. The project should be run efficiently, and issues, such as those raised about the local environment and local communities, should be addressed.
As I am sure the Minister knows, I am not alone in these concerns. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) has written to him about ancient woodlands and the environmental impact of HS2 on behalf of her constituents, as well about the uncertainty around the project.
Speaking on behalf of the people of Denham and the ancient woodlands in Denham Country Park and Colne Valley, there has been destruction to the ancient woodlands and aquifer there. We are at the coalface. I ask that we remember the environmental damage being done.
I thank the hon. Lady. I gave way to her because she is my neighbour and I know she wanted to get those things on the record on behalf of her constituents. I agree with her to the extent that when I last spoke extensively on this matter in Parliament, it was when the Government accepted Labour’s amendments on two key issues: reporting on the impact on our ancient woodland and protecting it, and properly consulting local communities. I hope the Minister is mindful of these two important factors in the continued construction of HS2.
Ultimately, it is those in the villages, towns and cities along the route who best know the environmental and logistical issues HS2 will bring. Prioritising engagement and transparency is the best way to deliver this project. In order to encourage even more people to travel by rail as one of the least polluting mass transport forms, rail should be the most convenient, affordable and connected option. We cannot lose sight of the initial reason for building this project. If we fail to provide these solutions for passengers, they will simply resort to more polluting and convenient forms of travel.
I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, I am always happy to engage in a debate in the main Chamber. Given the level of excitement and passion among hon. Members, I think the Government and the Leader of the House should look closely at that.
Just last week, the Rail Delivery Group warned that a further 20% shift from rail to roads would lead to an increase of some 300 million hours of traffic congestion. We cannot allow the pandemic to push us backwards in our plight of decarbonising transport. The impact of returning commuters and building HS2 is wider than just transport, with £30 billion in high street spending that is crucial for keeping businesses open in our towns and city centres. Many businesses and commuters have made crucial plans around the guarantee of HS2 being delivered, and the Government have promised that it will stimulate the economy and rebalance the north-south divide.
However, continued failures of Government to properly commit to the eastern leg to Leeds paints a very different picture. No integrated rail plan, no Northern Powerhouse Rail and no eastern leg—does the Minister think that is good enough? Siemens, Hitachi, Alstom, Aecom, British Steel, Mace, Babcock and many other businesses certainly do not. This week, they noted that
“scaling back the line would have a ‘devastating impact on confidence’ in the industry”
“it is the communities in those regions who will be most let down should the eastern leg not move forward”.
I ask the Minister to address this in his response. The Government’s usual dither and delay will not cut it. The mismanagement of HS2 has left Government contemplating a decision to abandon those promises. Ballooning costs and persistent delays, which have become characteristic of this Government, have hurt communities, leading to some losing their confidence in such a project. That is why I urge the Government and HS2 to get a grip on this.
Although the Labour party stands behind the completion of HS2, that does not mean that constituents’ concerns can be ignored. I hope the Minister has listened today and will provide some concrete reassurance on the environmental, cost and business case for HS2. If we do not commit to it in full, significantly increase capacity in our network and encourage a seismic shift towards rail, I fear net zero may be out of reach and communities will be left behind. We must therefore ensure that the Government deliver on their promises.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for opening this debate, and right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions.
I welcome the continued public scrutiny of the high-speed rail programme. I will address some of the key issues raised during this debate, although I probably have only about seven minutes left to reply.
Unfortunately, I did not get called in the debate, but the Minister already knows my strong opposition to the scheme. I want to press him on the benefit-cost ratio. The Oakervee review said it had already dropped from 2.3 to 1.1, and post pandemic we can expect it to come down even further. Does he agree that we need another review so that we can properly assess the value of the scheme?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I will talk about the benefit-cost ratio if I get there in time. The last benefit-cost ratio for the scheme was of course published when the last full business case was published in April 2020. It is worth saying that this is a long-term investment in the future of our country, and we should not base long-term investment decisions on what has been happening over 18 months.
I am one of those who are deeply sceptical about the value for money of this project. I can think of considerable other ways to invest that money that would have a much stronger economic benefit. On the impact of the covid pandemic, has the Minister considered the long-term impact of the growing use of Zoom, electronic communications and so on? Surely any sensible Government would look at the impact of that on business travel, commuter travel and so on as part of this project.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her point. Of course, the Government are looking at this in a cross-Government way. We are looking at changing working patterns, which have impacts not only on transport investment but on regeneration and a whole range of things. We will say more about our thinking in the coming months. As we said in the Queen’s Speech, we intend to bring forward a western leg Bill. Obviously, it would have to be accompanied by projections for the whole network, not just the western leg, so I hope we will publish more information on that in the very near future.
I look forward to the Minister publishing more information. I also look forward to the integrated rail plan, which I am keen to see, with recommendations to scrap the Golborne spur leg, which impacts my constituency. It is a £2 billion line that basically goes nowhere. It brings all the pain and no gain to Warrington, so I ask him to prioritise scrapping it.
My hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Leigh (James Grundy) continue to push me on the Golborne spur. That is one of the many decisions that will be taken as part of the integrated rail plan, so I hope to be able to say more about that soon.
I spoke earlier about my constituent Darren Barnett and his colleagues, who are stuck in a financial straitjacket, both economically and personally. They are not able to move on because HS2 management in Birmingham has not made the funding available. Will the Minister meet them to explore how we can move this issue forward?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I am happy to meet him to discuss this issue. After doing the land and property review shortly after I became a Minister, I looked at a number of these tricky cases. I now review all the cases that are brought to my attention by right hon. and hon. Members on a fortnightly basis. I am more than happy to add that case to the list and meet him personally to see whether we can find a way forward.
I thank the Minister for coming to Marsden in my constituency to meet constituents. It is on the TransPennine route. Can we get rid of a myth this evening? Investment in HS2 is not instead of but as well as upgrading the TransPennine route, as well as Northern Powerhouse Rail and local infrastructure. We will get all the benefits only if the eastern leg is delivered and all those investments are made. That would improve jobs, connectivity and the environment, and it is good for our constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have about two minutes left, so I will say that HS2 is going full steam ahead. It is a railway of which we hope the country can be proud for many generations to come. Construction has now begun in earnest, with more than 300 active construction sites along the line of route from Birmingham to London. This year, we have achieved significant milestones, and momentum behind the project is growing. Today, we announced that HS2 is now supporting more than 20,000 jobs, just one year since the Prime Minister declared the formal start of construction of the Birmingham to London stretch of the route. This year, we will celebrate many brilliant feats of engineering, including the start of tunnelling under the Chilterns, with our two tunnel-boring machines having now tunnelled 1.5 km underground.
Many Members have expressed various concerns, and I am more than happy to meet them after the debate. I know that HS2 is a project that inspires strong feelings on all sides, as all major infrastructure projects do. All right hon. and hon. Members present know that the Government carefully considered the merits of proceeding with HS2, which has almost certainly been subject to more parliamentary scrutiny than any other infrastructure project. Our firm conclusion was that HS2 should go ahead, and it is now progressing, as I have outlined. In setting out the decision to proceed, we made a clear commitment to draw a line under past problems. This is a once-in-a-generation major infrastructure project that will shape this country for well over 100 years, showcasing our skills in engineering and construction.
Many comments have been made during the debate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) made a very reasonable speech, and I look forward to visiting his constituency next week. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised her concerns about regeneration plans around York station. I heard about those plans when I visited the National Railway Museum, and I am more than happy to meet her to talk in more depth about them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) has been consistent in his opposition to HS2. I was grateful that he recently took the time to introduce me to some of his councillors and residents. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) raised her concerns about community engagement, aquifer and bentonite. Let me be clear that the continued supply of high-quality drinking water from the Chilterns aquifer is a high priority. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) made clear his opposition to HS2, but also his desire to see changes to phase 2a. I am happy to continue to engage with him on the changes that he would like to see. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made some valid points about the opposition that infrastructure projects have always attracted over the years, and I thank him for his support on pushing ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) raised some concerns on behalf of his constituents, as he has been doing consistently since he was elected. I look forward to continuing to work with him to mitigate those impacts.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. I thank everyone for participating in such an important debate. What we have heard reflects how difficult it has been to strike a balance between achieving high-speed rail and managing that ambition in a genuinely clean, green and cost-effective way. Indeed, I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and many others about the devastating environmental impact that HS2 is having, with more than 15 hectares already utterly destroyed.
I also highlight the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) about the environmental and economic issues associated with the Wendover section of HS2. The offhand rejection of the Wendover tunnel proposal has demonstrated the need for the Government to actually commit to an independent investigation into a more truly environmentally friendly and cost-efficient mechanism for building sections of the railway should its construction continue.
I look forward to seeing the steps that the Government take in response to the points that have been raised today. I thank colleagues for joining me in the debate, and I thank you, Mr Mundell, for chairing it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 563380, relating to HS2.