High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill

Part of Speaker’s Statement – in the House of Commons at 7:44 pm on 28th April 2014.

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Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland) 7:44 pm, 28th April 2014

High-speed rail is of course supported by the Scottish Government and the SNP supports it in this

House. Our criticism, as with many things here, is about the Government’s management. Having already linked up with a partner European state, the highly productive French—and, by extension, the Belgians—in a good example of cross-border progress, the UK Government seem incapable of progressing similarly in what is currently their own territory. Perhaps it is the absence of the efficient French or merely dealing with an independent country that is the difference here but, whatever it is, there is a lack of ambition on a key infrastructure issue on the largest of these isles.

Having already lost its shipping advantage to Rotterdam, the UK is currently losing its aviation advantage. The third error seems to be to putting rail progress into the sidings. The pace of the project, placing the first point of construction in the south and poor planning by not linking to airports or providing bypasses around London are holding us back and taking away from what should be a good project. It seems that the only major spend that can go unchecked in UK is the £120 billion towards weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde, which are controlled by the Americans anyway and not particularly needed.

Where are we? High-speed rail may not reach Birmingham until 2032, by which time most here may be long retired. Meanwhile, understanding its value, China will have built many thousands of kilometres by then. We heard from the Secretary of State earlier that it has built 11,500 km from a standing start of 0 km in 2007. Back in the UK, the north-to-south advantages would be more pronounced by building in the north first and having the slowest rail replaced the fastest. The idea that everything has to radiate from London is folly and will delay our European partners who want to come to Scotland for business, affecting aggregate European GDP and therefore, by extension, all of us. Building in the north could also be cheaper per mile as it is less densely populated and has fewer buildings, making negotiations to acquire land more straight forward, quicker and better value for the public purse.

In Scotland, we are not following that template and are linking on a pattern of need. We are not radiating from Edinburgh. We have schemes to improve journey times on the northern corridor between Inverness and Aberdeen, as well as post-independence hopes to create greater economic links between the great city of Carlisle and Dumfries and Galloway, as well as building high-speed rail between Glasgow and Edinburgh within the decade. When in Carlisle recently, the First Minister of Scotland pointed out that the benefits of high-speed rail to Manchester or Leeds will also bring some £3 billion of benefit to Scotland, again showing the aggregate gain to the wider European economy from infrastructure improvements not necessarily in the territory. However, such benefits would increase eight times—some £24 billion —with a full high-speed rail link between Scotland’s big cities. The majority of that benefit would of course be in the central belt, but it would help the country as a whole. In addition, there would be a major shift from air to rail, saving fuel, making journeys cheaper and helping the environment. As we heard earlier from Damian Collins, we know now that most journeys between Paris and London are made by rail rather than air.

Following independence, when we will have two sovereign governments working on the project, as we have seen from the links to the continent, we may find ourselves reminded of the fact that the first rail link between Scotland and England did not start with a link to London, but rather between Carstairs and Carlisle. Independence should give hope not just to Scotland, but to the north of England, as the First Minister laid out in his St George’s day speech in Carlisle.

The arguments for high-speed rail are well researched and I hope they have been well rehearsed in this debate, but it is instructive to look at what the university of Southern Denmark found by analysing the link from Frankfurt to Cologne. It was found that it was difficult to untangle the benefits of high-speed rail as it tends to be built between two successful places. However, political horse-trading meant that the line stopped in two places, Montabaur and Limburg, where university researchers found an extra 2.7% GDP in those places for four years that then continued at a higher plateau.

We hope that high-speed rail will materialise and in the north as well. I mentioned the spending on weapons of mass destruction, but this would be spending on ploughshares that would plant the seeds of future economic growth. The railways that the Victorians planted many years ago are still bearing fruit not only in the UK, but also in Ireland. We should ensure that we help the economy of the future and if the project goes ahead, until something we see something tangible in Scotland there should be Barnett consequentials, as there should be for Wales.