HS2 Ltd and Local Community Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:17 pm on 16 March 2023.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 5:17, 16 March 2023

I thank my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti for securing this debate and my hon. Friend Sir William Cash for his contribution.

I grew up in a part of the country where both HS2 and East West Rail are under construction, and indeed, I shall be in that town this weekend again. I therefore fully recognise the change and upheaval that HS2 can bring to the communities that it passes through, represented by my hon. Friends and by Members across the House. As construction approaches its peak, so too does the level of disruption, and I appreciate that road closures, lorry movements and noise are now a lived reality for many people. I want to see HS2 Ltd leave a positive legacy for communities. Communities should be appropriately consulted, responded to efficiently and objectively, involved in plans and informed about the works affecting them.

When things go wrong, which happens from time to time, efforts should be made to learn from mistakes and come back with better solutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned his constituents Mr Stephen Fletcher and Mr Iain Smith. I will write to him and ensure that the matter is investigated. Where matters need to be dealt with in their favour, we will do just that.

Perhaps I may focus on the two matters that were brought up with regard to fixed structures, and indeed the roads. First, I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern about the design of the Balsall Common viaduct and the process that HS2 Ltd has gone through to develop it. As I said in my letter to him, which he referenced, I am keen to ensure that the process of engaging local communities in the design of the project’s key elements, such as the viaduct, is working well. I am aware that HS2 Ltd has held a number of well-attended engagement events and briefings with local people and their representatives as the design has progressed over the year. Although I am assured by HS2 Ltd that the viaduct has been carefully designed to reflect its environmental context and position, I have also heard—as the House has heard from my hon. Friend—that the engagement feels like an explaining rather than a listening event.

I am keen to put on the record that good community ideas and suggestions must be heard and worked upon. That is not only good to ensure that the community receives the legacy that they want, but it is polite. It is important to note that the options considered as part of the design process are constrained by certain factors, such as the structural performance requirements of a high-speed railway. My hon. Friend has made unfavourable comparisons with the design of another HS2 viaduct further south in Colne Valley, which I visited some weeks back. HS2 Ltd stresses that it is a different type of structure in a different context. However, like me, HS2 Ltd will have heard my hon. Friend’s call for the viaduct to fit with the local area and character. The schedule 17 application for the design of the Balsall Common viaduct was submitted in January, and the decision currently rests with Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. I will await its decision with interest, as I know will my hon. Friend.

Let me turn to the matters raised on Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane and the appeals. I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about the use of lorry routes in Balsall Common. The inspector has made a recommendation to Ministers on the appeal, and the issue is now being considered by Ministers in my Department and in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We anticipate a decision in the coming weeks. In the meantime, my hon. Friend will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the case, although I can say that the House has heard his views on the appropriateness of Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane.

Turning to community engagement concerns, including the matters referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, the Department takes the monitoring of HS2 construction seriously. HS2 Ltd and its contractors are held to account by the independent construction commissioner, the HS2 residents commissioner and the Department for Transport’s team of independent construction inspectors. I met the HS2 construction commissioner in February, and the residents commissioner before that, to discuss current issues affecting communities and to better understand how HS2 Ltd and its contractors are responding to those challenges. Regular reporting is just one of the ways in which we monitor and proactively assure not just the cost and efficiency of the project, but how HS2 is being delivered. HS2 Ltd and its contractors are rightly required to comply with exacting environmental requirements, including a comprehensive code of construction practice, which specifies measures to minimise the full range of impacts that any construction project has on affected people and communities, as well as all the undertakings, assurance and environmental commitments contained in the HS2 Acts.

Effective communication with affected parties is also crucial. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden and for Stone for giving examples of when we do not always get it right but we need to do so. I am committed to making sure that issues are resolved as quickly as possible and lessons are learned for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone delivered a litany of concerns on behalf of his constituents. He has asked for a rocket to be delivered. I am not sure I will be arriving in his constituency in a rocket, but I will come. He has asked me to see whether these matters can be rectified. I know, working in partnership with him, that we have every chance of doing a better job, if he feels that job is not being done at the moment. I look forward to visiting him and his constituents.

To conclude, I will continue to work as Rail Minister with hon. and right hon. Members and others in the community on making sure that we get the delivery of infrastructure projects right. I want HS2 to be an example to other transport projects, not just in what it delivers, but in the way it is delivered, and I recognise that that means making improvements, learning from experience and changing how we operate in order to become better, and I am committed to HS2 Ltd doing that. Limiting construction impacts in the first place should be a primary concern for all working on HS2, but so should treating people and places with the respect they deserve and ensuring that any impacts are mitigated or avoided when not required.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden and for Stone for this debate. It is vital that we continue to discuss our transport projects openly and transparently and that all hon. and right hon. Members use this Chamber to press me to ensure that their constituents are represented, as has happened here today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.