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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 5:33 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 5:33 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, in the remarks he has just made. We cannot possibly know what the world will look like in the years ahead.

I am not in favour of HS2. It has been called a vanity project. I am not sure that those who thought up the scheme are vain, but they are misguided, and in terms of our national transport network they have got their priorities very wrong. Some of our greatest engineering achievements were, at their inception, seen as overambitious and dauntingly difficult but turned out when completed to have been far-sighted and invaluable. Thomas Telford’s famous suspension bridge over the Menai Straits meant that the people of the island of Anglesey no longer had to row against the turbulent tides to reach the mainland and wait for a very low tide to urge their cattle to swim across to market.

Bazalgette’s sewers saved Londoners not just from a terrible stench in high summer but from the spreading of disease. London’s Tube system fulfilled the need for its citizens to move around the city and has been copied all over the world. Our motorway system, the Channel Tunnel and even Crossrail can be seen as necessary projects and our ports, airports and canals, with their breath-taking aqueducts, were all built to satisfy a need and, in their own way, have stood the test of time.

Where all those mighty projects differ from HS2 is that they were conceived, designed and built to satisfy an obvious and acknowledged need—a serious problem demanding a solution. HS2 has been dreamt up simply on the assumption that there is a pressing need for passengers to travel at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour, and a need to improve capacity, which is seriously disputed, at a cost of £50 billion. History has acknowledged and acclaimed the foresight and ingenuity of the men and women who pioneered the projects I mentioned, as well as recognising their intrinsic value. History will not be kind to those who, if it is pursued, push through this silly scheme. Who really wants to travel at 250 miles per hour over such relatively short distances? It is unnecessary and ridiculously expensive. The time saved is not worth all the cost and upheaval. The money would be much better spent on improving communications in the north, as has been mentioned repeatedly, or on improving stations and infrastructure generally.

Your Lordships may gather from these remarks that HS2 does not have my wholehearted approval, but my main reason for speaking today is to highlight the damage the scheme may do to our environment and to the countryside through which it will be driven. The countryside—trees, ancient woodland and areas of outstanding natural beauty—gets no mention in this report, yet it is hugely implicated in the economics of HS2. If HS2 does not proceed, our countryside is safe. If it goes ahead, it is in serious danger and, if we care, the cost of protecting it will be well worth while.

Perhaps I may deal, albeit briefly, with just one section of the proposed line: that through the Chilterns. The proposed route of HS2 bisects the county of Buckinghamshire diagonally across its length for 60 kilometres, from south-east to north-west, which is about one-third of the total route between London and Birmingham. Buckinghamshire is the county most adversely affected by HS2 and the route crosses under and over the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. It severs irreplaceable ancient woodland, dissects a nationally important historic landscape, detaches heritage assets from their rural setting and disrupts intact medieval landscapes and areas of great biodiversity and value. HS2 has no tangible benefits for the people of Buckinghamshire.

A feasibility study by Peter Brett Associates of an alternative tunnelling option under the Chilterns has been commissioned by a number of the local authorities affected. Its findings were presented to the House of Commons Select Committee on 13 July this year by a team led by Mr Ray Payne. The main conclusion of the study is that a long tunnel for the transit of the Chilterns by HS2 is technically feasible and would protect the designated landscape of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt, where appropriate. It would mean that no houses would have to be demolished and that there would be no landfilling of surplus soil, minimal disturbance of the area of outstanding natural beauty and minimal impact on communities, businesses and residents. The extra cost of construction is estimated at £480 million, which in a budget of £50 billion—and given the huge advantages it brings—must be acceptable. In fact I understand that an alternative long-tunnel proposal, similar to the Chilterns long tunnel, has been proposed more recently. It is referred to by HS2 Ltd as T3i, follows the same route as the Government’s scheme and has been priced by HS2 Ltd at an extra £350 million. For the reasons that I have set out, if we must have HS2 then the solution to the Chilterns problem is a long tunnel.

At all levels of government, we constantly proclaim our affection for the environment, our appreciation of all it does and our determination to protect it. Here, on the grandest platform of development possible, we have the chance to prove that we really care, or to admit that those are just so many hollow words. If this scheme deserves to be carried out, it deserves to be carried out as sympathetically as possible to the countryside through which it will run and to the people whose lives will be affected by it.