Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:35 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Gilbert Lord Gilbert Labour 8:35 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I start by apologising to the whole House for the fact that I was not here at the beginning of yesterday’s debate. The consequences of that, I realise, fall upon Members who are here today, who have to listen to me giving the rant on transport that I was going to give yesterday. Such are the easy rules of protocol of your Lordships’ House that one is able to speak on any subject in the debate on the Loyal Address on any day of the week.

I thought that I would start with Heathrow. Heathrow is a national disgrace. It is not worthy of a third-world country, yet we brag to ourselves about what a splendid airport it is. I have friends in New York who come to London via Charles de Gaulle Airport in order to avoid Heathrow, and I am not in the least bit surprised. There are many such examples. If you arrive at a terminal at Heathrow—I have not counted the number of terminals but this applies to most of them—by private car or taxi and it happens to be raining, you get wet. It is as simple as that. To call that a modern airport is unbelievable. Sometimes with one or two of the terminals—the latest ones—you have to get on a bus to get from your gate to the plane. You would do better than that in Lagos. It really is a scandal, yet we go around shouting our heads off about what a brilliant airport it is.

Of course, this is not the direct responsibility of the Heathrow authorities, but when you leave Heathrow terminal 5 the only road sign you get—if noble Lords do not believe me, they can go and have a look—points to a place called Staines. How many people arriving at Heathrow want to go to Staines? They have never heard of Staines and they do not know where Staines is, but there is nothing else to tell them where to go. That is our prime international focus. It is unbelievable.

Then we have a bunch of idiots who want to put an airport in the middle of the Thames estuary. I have never heard anything more bonkers. It would be right in the middle of the shipping lanes and in the middle of the climate of the Thames estuary, with the catchment areas in northern France and Brussels, and with very doubtful access to emergency services. I cannot imagine a more ridiculous idea. It goes without saying that I think that Heathrow should have four runways, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I now want to say something about the railways. I know a little bit about this as—this is probably without the memory of your Lordships—some 40 years ago Harold Wilson made me Minister for Transport. I am so envious of the present Minister for Transport, who is told that he can concentrate on capital expenditure. With all the money that I had, there were a lot of lunatics on the Labour Back Benches telling me to cut bus fares. That is what I was supposed to do with the money I was given. It was not to improve the infrastructure that the country desperately needed, but that is how it was.

The idea of HS2 is absolutely idiotic—another idiotic waste of money. We do not need it. The money would be much better spent on electrifying parts of the network that are not yet electrified. In particular, a huge amount could be spent on modernising the current infrastructure in London and the south-east. A great deal has been spent on extending platforms and signalling, but further electrification would add greatly to the efficiency of the country and to the welfare of people living in this part of the world.

I want to say a word or two about motorways. We pride ourselves on our motorways, but hardly a single motorway reaches a port in this country. I challenge any of your Lordships to tell me which motorways get to ports. Freight and passengers come off a ship and, having gone through a lot of suburban roads, they will get to a motorway. Very few motorways are motorway from start to finish. The M25 has toll structures in the middle of it. That is not a motorway. Some go down to two lanes in each direction. Anyone who does not know that has never driven on the M40. It is an absolute disgrace and dangerous.

I am keen on two other things. One of my predecessors as Transport Minister was the great Fred Mulley. Denis Healey once said he thought that Fred was the most underrated Minister in Whitehall. He may well have been because he was a delightful fellow. Later, after I left transport, I served under him at defence. He loved roundabouts. I hate roundabouts. They are the biggest damned-fool contribution to road congestion in this country. If I had my way, we would replace every God-damn roundabout in sight with grade separation. It would cost a lot of money but this fellow, the Transport Minister, has lots of money for capital improvements. It would speed up the traffic, reduce pollution and add to road safety in this country.

There is one other thing that I did not get around to doing in the 15 months that I was at transport. We should have at least one overhead gantry sign before every turnoff on every motorway. If you do not have them and there is a line of lorries on the inside lane, you do not even see that your exit is coming and you can miss it very easily. There are lots of ways in which sensible money can be spent on the transport infrastructure of this country without wasting it on mad ideas such as airports in the middle of the North Sea or high speed rail and trains that we do not need. I am grateful to noble Lords.