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Economic Case for HS2 (Economic Affairs Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:27 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour 4:27 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, I have been actively involved in the development of high-speed trains from when I first entered government in 1997, when I was given the first bill within two weeks for a further £2 billion from a collapsed private HS1 project, which had made difficult statements about the cost and the people travelling on it. These estimates, which are shown and exposed in the committee’s report, which I fully support, are therefore not new to me: they show the great uncertainties involved in making an analysis on a huge amount of money, a third of which will be paid by the taxpayer. We are talking about almost a public-private operation here, so I very much support that evidence.

Of course, I was faced with the difficulty of finding £2 billion. I immediately had to bring it into public ownership, because, after all, the Government are the lender of last resort in these situations. My flatmate Dennis Skinner thought it was marvellous: he thought that the revolution was already starting. In reality, however, they are costly and there are difficult decisions to be made about them, but they are important.

The committee does not recommend—despite its criticisms—that it does not want to see a high-speed train. It might want a different one; it might want to change it, as the recommendations suggest. I am like that: I am not against it, but when I was arguing with my noble friend Lord Adonis, in the early stages when he brought this project forward, I did not like the idea justified on 30 minutes to Birmingham. I did not think that it justified that kind of money. What I did argue was, why not connect it to the northern investment in the railway transport system? That is underfunded and being left at a disadvantage compared to the billions poured into the London system. I thought the northern part, if you linked it with what they then called HS3—though it will not be at 250 miles an hour, I suppose—which is the east-west connection, is an important part of connectivity for the cities in the north, as well as for the cities in the south.

To my mind, the northern extension is the important part. I remind the House of all the argument about the north over HS1, where northern towns were told,

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you trains”. They even built the sleeper trains, then found they could not run on the southern electrification, so I had to sell them to Canada.

The north is a critical part of this. That is what I want to talk about here: how we can we get the rebalancing that the Government talk about? All that I have just heard was about rebalancing to the south, not the north, on something that is very unequal at the moment. I welcome David Higgins’ recommendations and the reassessment he made, but the way we have it at the moment is still not right. I will refer to a recommendation in the committee’s report which I think is necessary.

My concern is with delay. You need only listen to people talking about either Euston station, where it will be or the line, the route, the costs and further inquiries—all that means delay. It is already estimated to start by 2020 and arrive in the north by about 2035, though we cannot get an exact date. Nobody mentions it, just like the cost. In the north, we will be waiting 20 years for HS2 to arrive. But we can avoid that. Most of the delay will be on legislative procedures, arguments of cost, tunnelling wherever it is and all the arguments going on at the moment—and there are more from this committee. I would like HS2 to arrive at the north, at whatever stations we want, a lot earlier than that.

I suggest that one possibility we take into account is to carry on, even if—as the committee said—it is with the electrification of the Pennine link. That is an important link of east and west across the north. Everybody agrees with it: the argument is over when it will come. At the moment, if you go on a train from Leeds to Manchester, it is a disgrace. It is unsafe. You cannot even get on the train and there are no rules about how many passengers can get on it. To that extent, we need higher priority for the north.

To take some of the recommendations from the committee, its report talks about prioritisation. That is a very important point. Where I disagree partly with the committee is that its prioritisation is to start it in phase 1—the northern part of HS2—and then that will be the path. I would go further than that. Look, if you want to start it, start it in the north. You will have to wait five or six years, or more than that, before you can get the first sod out of the ground. That is what is happening. We need to do it now.

That was in my report of 2004 called TheNorthern Way. We started that with the hub of Manchester. Let us complete that now. Let us do the Pennine link, make it a real national one at a fraction of what is being spent on Crossrail and other connections planned at present. Let us start that investment in the north now and give the north the advantage since, as the committee points out, the greater growth and economic contribution comes from the north, for a number of good reasons. We could get the better advantages by starting this whole project in the north, by connecting the east-west link. Then, when we have finished arguing about what we want done in phase 1 and phase 2, we will wait for it. Why hold up the north from getting investment now, which will bring more jobs, more investment and more growth in the economy? That seems a northern answer to the proper question that we have at the moment.

To help the Government, I give them a suggestion of something that they might be able to do. The Government, as I said in my own reports back in the 2000s, recommended most of these things. We did some of them but you came along and cancelled them—it was called an election. Then you came up to us in the north and said, “We’re going to give you some money for the trans-Pennine link”. Blimey, within two weeks you were telling us that it would be delayed. Why was that? It was for another cost consideration, a calculation made by a network that the cost for the Great Western is no longer £450 million but will be £1.3 billion. What do you do? Do you rebalance to the north? No, you take the money away from the northern investment you promised and put it down in the south. It is no wonder that the Prime Minister goes to Yorkshire and thinks Yorkies hate each other. For God’s sake, they hate you for not carrying out what you promised. That is what you promised and that is what we do.

It makes good common sense, it is something we should do and if you really believed in helping the north to develop and in rebalancing—an important point—then do the essential thing now: start the development of the train network and the strategic investments that we want in the north. Then come along later with the Channel Tunnel—I mean HS2; I call it the Channel Tunnel—and connect it to HS1. You know what that is? It is called transport planning. It means thinking of them all together instead of starting on one and trying to justify everything else, which has now just been exposed by the committee.