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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 6:41 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 6:41 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, I welcome today’s debate and the powerful speeches that we have heard, including from my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Prescott, and from my noble friend Lord Mitchell, who told us that reports of the impending death of the railway industry were not premature. I also thank my noble friend Lord Hollick and the Economic Affairs Committee for their report, which, as my noble friend Lord Monks pointed out, looked at HS2 from one particular, albeit important, angle.

The report displays a certain lack of enthusiasm for the project, though not for investment in rail infrastructure. It says that:

“The Government has yet to make a convincing case for proceeding … it is not at all clear that HS2 represents the best, most cost-effective solution to the problems it is intended to solve”,

and that the Government “must answer” the list of questions set out in chapter 9 of the report before the high-speed rail Bill completes its passage through Parliament.

The Government published their response in July and presumably its content will form part of the Minister’s response—though not, I hope, the whole response, in the light of the views that some noble Lords have expressed about the adequacy of the Government’s replies to the questions posed in chapter 9. The July response, however, includes a statement in paragraph 1.13:

“Together with the Government’s Northern Transport Strategy, HS2 will bring the Northern cities closer together”.

We had a debate before the Recess on the Government’s northern transport strategy, followed by an announcement shortly afterwards that made it clear that everything was not quite as rosy with that strategy as a reasonable person might have concluded. Any lack of openness and transparency about HS2 will not assist in bringing a successful conclusion to this project, which was an important commitment of the last Labour Government and my noble friend Lord Adonis, and one to which we continue to give our support—including, despite what I am about to say, myself personally.

I have an interest to declare, in that I have a home close to the intended line of route. I live in an area where there is considerable opposition to HS2, as the HS2 Select Committee is by now aware. There will be no direct benefit to the residents of the area in question from HS2 since there will be no HS2 station nearby, but only the inevitable disruption to many residents over a lengthy period which arises from the construction of any major new piece of infrastructure in a semi-urban area, and the still-unresolved loss—despite visits by more than one Minister making sympathetic noises—of an important and substantial outdoor activity centre used by a great many young people.

My noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara has also raised concerns felt by residents in the Chilterns about the impact of the present HS2 plans. The London Borough of Camden, while opposed to HS2, has said that if it to proceed there needs to be a commitment from the Government to a properly funded and timetabled programme to develop the whole of Euston station to facilitate the building of affordable homes, create new jobs and give a significant economic boost—a point to which my noble friend Lord Adonis referred.

On the line of route for phase 2, the Government simply say that they will outline the way forward before the end of this year, which is not same as saying that they are anywhere near confirming their intentions on the line of route. Thus the uncertainty continues, and with it the associated concerns.

Some concerns to which I have referred can never be fully addressed, short of abandoning HS2, but a number of concerns can be addressed in whole or in part. The Government ought to be taking that point seriously and addressing outstanding concerns and unresolved issues as soon as possible. They should also recognise that most of those who will feel the greatest impact of the inevitable upheaval from the construction of HS2 will gain no direct benefit. In that regard, a bit more care and thought might also at least avoid own goals, which call into question competence. I understand that at the Select Committee, HS2 Ltd had to make an apology for having told concerned residents in one location for more than two years that the tunnel would be 30 metres beneath them, when the reality was that it would be only about half that depth.

I have already indicated our continuing support for the HS2 project. We are of course far from alone in taking that stance. The House of Commons Transport Committee, at the end of 2013, expressed its support for the strategic case for HS2 and said that it stood by the conclusion that HS2 is needed,

“to provide a long-term increase in the capacity of the railway and that alternative proposals to increase capacity are not sufficient to accommodate long-term forecast demand”.

The General Secretary of the TUC has welcomed the decision to invest in high-speed rail, stating that it will,

“prove vital in getting more passengers and freight onto rail, narrowing the north-south divide and speeding our economic recovery”.

There have also been responses to the report we are considering today. The CBI shares the view that a modern railway is needed to deal with lack of capacity on the west coast main line. The CBI said that HS2,

“will better connect eight of our ten biggest cities, boosting … economies along and beyond the route … It’s vital we avoid any further delays to the project”.

The British Chambers of Commerce agreed that the Economic Affairs Committee,

“is right to investigate the cost of the project and its ability to rebalance the economy”.

However, the BCC went on to say that,

“if businesses have to wait several years for the details to be fleshed out, the UK’s competitiveness will be further compromised. There is a convincing case for HS2, as it is the only solution that can deliver the step-change in capacity that Britain’s north-south railways require”.

The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce said it believes that the Lords committee has largely ignored evidence given to it about the impact outside London and has focused on the capital, and that HS2 will provide massive opportunities to redevelop greater Birmingham and reskill parts of the workforce in the West Midlands.

Network Rail has said that, with over 4,000 trains running every day on the west coast main line, our busiest and most economically important line is all but full, and that HS2 will fundamentally reshape the UK’s rail network in a way that incremental improvements simply cannot deliver.

Elected leaders in our northern city regions, including Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, have also reiterated their support for HS2 and the benefits that it will bring. The chair of Transport for the North has said that we should not undermine one of the most significant measures, which alongside—not instead of—east-west transport improvements is necessary to help rebalance the nation’s economy. In his words:

“We need to stop the British habit of finding every way to delay major infrastructure investment and get on with delivering and maximising the very real economic benefits it will bring as it creates the long term capacity to bring our great cities within easy reach of each other and international markets”.

I appreciate that the Economic Affairs Committee has not actually said that HS2 should be delayed or put on hold, but rather has raised a number of questions about the case for HS2 and the need for the Government to provide convincing answers before the enabling legislation for the first phase of the construction completes its passage through Parliament. It is up to the Government to provide those convincing answers.

There is certainly some opposition to HS2, but there is also widespread support for the project related primarily to capacity, connectivity and regeneration, including the support reiterated by the shadow Transport Secretary in the Commons yesterday.