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It is a great pleasure to follow Bridget Phillipson. I want to use my time this afternoon to speak about a project, the argument for which is often that it reduces overall carbon emissions from our transport network, although that argument is debatable. The project, inevitably, is HS2.
The motion is really about the strategic outline of transport policy for the foreseeable future. I believe that high-speed rail can be a part of that. From an environmental point of view, trains are better than planes and high- speed rail can provide genuine competition for short- haul flights. Taking city-to-city passenger traffic off the conventional rail network and on to high-speed rail lines can leave more space for stopping passenger services to more destinations and can leave more train pathways for freight services that take freight off our roads. Those are all, in my judgment, good arguments, but they are arguments for a well-designed and well delivered high-speed rail network. I am afraid that I do not believe that HS2 qualifies for that description.
If it is to be built, HS2 will be a significant part of our strategic transport infrastructure, with many miles of new track. I accept, of course, that building such infrastructure in a small and crowded island is bound to be disruptive, but those responsible for building the infrastructure have a responsibility to minimise the disruption. People whose homes, businesses and farm land will be demolished, diminished or devalued by HS2 have a right to be treated fairly and with decency. In the decade of this project’s development, and in my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament, they too often have not been. Communication is invariably poor, consideration for distress caused is lacking, and compensation is grudgingly agreed and painfully and slowly extracted.
I accept, of course, that taxpayers’ interests must be protected, but the nation has an obligation to those who take a personal hit for national benefit. That obligation falls to be discharged by HS2 Ltd in this project. There are individual HS2 Ltd employees who do their best to be compassionate and responsive, but I have to say that I find HS2 Ltd as a corporate entity to be both chronically inefficient and institutionally callous. If HS2 is to proceed, that must change. What makes it worse for so many of those individually affected is that they do not accept the case for HS2 in the first place. Many more of our constituents who are not directly affected by HS2, but are profoundly concerned about the environmental damage it will do and the price tag it has, feel the same.
A project of this scale will inevitably cost a great deal and its cost cannot be properly considered in isolation from its benefits, both direct and indirect, but the financial cost of HS2 is not just high but rising fast: £32.7 billion by 2012; £55.7 billion by 2015; and at least £72 billion by last year, with few believing it will stop there. What makes HS2 very high cost is its very high speed and the expensive engineering required to achieve it. It is also the requirement for very high speed that removes the project’s ability to divert around sensitive areas and reduce environmental damage. Very high speed used to be the primary argument for HS2, but significantly it is now capacity improvements that are argued as justification for the project. Those capacity improvements do not require the very high speeds to which this project is currently working.