High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:37 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Conservative 12:37 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I am tempted to try to contribute to some of the very important issues that have already been so expertly dealt with, in particular in the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who demonstrated his clear knowledge, commitment and persuasiveness on the whole subject. I want to concentrate on an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, referred, and which will be relevant for the Select Committee that the Minister and others have mentioned. That issue was debated in the Select Committee in the House of Commons, and it was unable to reach a conclusion on it, so it will be important for our own Select Committee to deal with it.

First, I must declare a non-financial interest. One of my lifelong hobbies has been conjuring. I think I am the only magician to have performed in No. 10 Downing Street, No. 12 Downing Street and the Speaker’s Chambers in the House of Commons—all three. My main claim to fame is that I appeared once in the television appeal programme “Children in Need”, hosted by the sadly late Terry Wogan. The final episode was so and so’s revenge—and I was put up to do the politician’s revenge, which was to persuade John Humphrys to have his head cut off by me, and for a lot of people to contribute charitably for me to do so, or for him to agree to it. He was a great sport and did agree to it. He was, rightly, highly nervous, as was I. I should say that my colleagues in the House of Commons criticised me the other day for putting it back on again.

I am, therefore, a member of the Magic Circle, one of the premier organisations in the world for magicians and a Mecca for magic, with a large number of members both here in the UK and internationally. It is not a wealthy organisation. Some years ago, after a stupendous fundraising effort, the Magic Circle found an ideal location for its new headquarters in Stephenson Way, adjacent to Euston Station and where much of the works to accommodate HS2 at Euston, including underground, will take place. The Magic Circle building was substantially renovated in the noughties to provide a library, a museum to house all sorts of magical treasures of historic interest, a dining room, a club room, bars, and so on. Its location is ideal, not just for magicians amateur and professional here in the UK but from across the world. Its continuation is heavily dependent on substantial commercial contributions from running events and hiring out the facilities, all of which could be severely at risk as the construction work takes place at Euston.

The Magic Circle is not alone in facing this problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has already said. There are six other organisations, which are—dare I say it?—much more prestigious, significant and well known, located in the same area. They are all similarly affected and have formed the Stephenson Way Group to voice their concerns and seek safeguards. They are the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Wellcome Foundation, the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—and the Methodist Church. The members of the group are all charities and pre-eminent bodies in their respective fields, delivering considerable public benefit. They are a unique cluster of like-minded organisations devoted to research and promoting knowledge in the spheres of health, well-being and the arts.

I want to give an indication of the kind of problems that its members face in this context. Their buildings are all put to sensitive uses; they house uniquely bespoke facilities; they are all used for training, conferencing and learning; and several have residential accommodation associated with their primary functions. Group members also rely on hiring out their facilities in order to sustain their core purposes. Their location greatly assists the national and international work. Their work should not be jeopardised or impaired by the HS2 project, yet no adequate solution to their plight has yet been provided by HS2.

Among the problems that HS2 building works will create are utilities diversions, demolitions, deep excavations, ground works and construction works. Access to the properties will be impeded. The noise, dust and vibration, the impeded access and the likely need to carry out protective works or alterations to the buildings may result in group members having to vacate their buildings for some or all of their very important functions for lengthy periods. I could go through a number of the issues. Without adequate safeguards, among them are: building damage; water ingress; damage to highly important equipment, surgeries and so on; damage to nationally and internationally important archives; impaired access; disruption of teaching and examinations vital for the medical profession, and so on, all resulting in reduced public benefit.

It is fair to say that when developing and introducing these proposals, the Government and HS2 had so many issues to deal with that they failed to recognise the severity of the impacts on the Stephenson Way Group. In May 2014 the group therefore petitioned against the Bill, setting out its concerns. Even then, HS2 was slow to acknowledge the extent of the huge potential detriment to the group. By December 2015, when it was the group’s turn to appear before the Commons Select Committee, little progress had been made. HS2 has now offered some assurances but they fall far short of what is needed. It has set up a business mitigation group in order to discuss these issues further. The Commons Select Committee looked at all these issues and had this to say as a result in its report:

“Businesses, hotels and professional and academic organisations in and around Stephenson Way will be severely affected by construction. They need proper notice of when works will commence so that they can organise their activities. We believe a minimum of three months’ notice is appropriate—preferably more”.

The key point is this:

The Promoter has agreed to establish a business mitigation user group to discuss problems and solutions. These will be helpful. We urge the Promoter to respond positively to the needs of petitioners from this area in the period between our report and the Lords select committee stage. The activities of several of the organisations we heard from are noise and/or vibration sensitive. We would like the Promoter to pay the reasonable costs of risk assessment and surveying to determine sensitivity to construction effects such as vibration”.

It now falls to the Lords committee to follow this through, as the Commons committee specifically urged it to do. One or two of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made would be very helpful in this context. I hope, therefore, that the committee will monitor closely the work of the business mitigation group, with a view to getting a satisfactory detailed plan to deal with these issues by the conclusion of the committee’s deliberations, and, if not satisfied, will make further recommendations as to how they can be dealt with.