Since I last spoke on HS2, the project continues to be a source of considerable controversy, as we have heard this afternoon. Feelings are running high in parts of my constituency, for although we have been able to welcome the plans for additional tunnelling, which will make a big difference to parts of Ealing, there remain communities in east Acton that will be seriously affected by the construction works around Old Oak Common.
I should say straight away that I remain supportive of the principle of HS2. The country needs regular long-term planned infrastructure projects and this one is overdue. Parts of the current network are already over capacity and comparatively slow. It is also worth considering how factors such as modern transport networks affect our attractiveness to overseas business. Britain must continue—to borrow the phrase—to be open for business, and our trains have been under-invested in over the years.
I remain a committed opponent to a third runway at Heathrow and still believe that a modern rail network with increased capacity will reduce the reliance on air travel, especially on short domestic flights—although I should add that the unwelcome renewed speculation about expanding Heathrow does not help to reinforce that particular line of reasoning.
Broadly, I believe that HS2 is a timely investment in long-term planning for our transport network. I am, however, deeply disappointed about crucial aspects of the project as the details of the compensation arrangements become clearer and I must raise some serious concerns. The first is the lack of provision for the years of huge inconvenience to be suffered by residents near construction sites. In Acton, that would mean those living near Old Oak lane close by Old Oak Common. They face at least a decade of massive disruption and must be appropriately compensated. There are real concerns that some living in the area—already semi-cut off by railway lines—will be almost completely trapped by the huge construction works and will be unable easily to get out and about to shops, GPs, schools and the like due to heavy demands on the capacity of local roads. Alternatives, such as extra bus routes around the works, will have to be laid on and effective traffic management will be essential, but I suspect that even the best-laid alternative plans will not make up for the enormous upheaval to those living in the area.
I find it quite extraordinary that HS2 and its planners can take such a cavalier attitude towards those communities. My worries were hardly allayed by the company’s recent briefing on its compensation package proposals, which were actually made worse. There is no recognition of the problem. When asked at the meeting about those who are likely to suffer the worst impact in places such as east Acton and who need to move, HS2 claimed that the new transport links will make the properties in the area more desirable and valuable in future, so there will be no problem if the owners want to sell them on. If those properties make such desirable investments, I see no reason why they cannot be included in a voluntary purchase scheme. Also, I should point out that the area has a lot of elderly residents. For them it has been home for many years and they might not wish to move. The prospect of a vague increase in property value in around 15 years’ time as compensation for a decade of hardship is clearly not acceptable. For those who want to stick it out in intensely difficult circumstances, there should be recognition and recompense for the blight to their lives over a decade or more.
The second area where I feel the compensation proposals fall short is the difference between the urban and rural policies. I am sure that colleagues who represent urban constituencies will agree that we seem to be getting a comparatively bad deal. We need only look at the compensation briefing document to see how little there is on proposals for urban areas compared with the pages on the rural compensation proposals. That suggests an underlying assumption that, having chosen to live in a city, one becomes immune to noise and pollution and therefore less entitled to consideration for compensation. I accept that there are some different considerations, but this goes too far. One does not have to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty to be inconvenienced by a train depot appearing on one’s doorstep.
The omission from the scheme of some of my constituents who will so clearly be affected has caused me to question my support for the project. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling that we must get these details right before continuing. I will stay on side with the Government tonight, but I will need to see a change of heart on the compensation issues I have laid out if I am to stay on side during the Bill’s later stages.