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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:45 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour 12:45 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I hope my contribution will not be seen as negative. It is a different view. It is not the Government’s view or the Opposition’s view, which has been ably presented by my noble friend Lord Rosser: it is a northern view—a different perspective on what we are doing with this investment in HS2. To show that I am not hostile to Europe, in 1987, as the Opposition spokesman, I delivered a document on the route to Europe called Moving to Europe. It was a different route from the one that we have now got, avoiding the whole London complication, and had a different form of financing. I then went into government in 1997 and was faced with the collapse of HS1. It wanted £2 billion more—having got £3 billion of assets—and the private sector was not prepared to fund it or even to believe in the number of people who would be travelling on it. It is now successful and up for sale by the Government, after the taxpayer saved it from collapse. I learned certain lessons from that, which brings us to HS2.

I am delighted to see my colleague, who shared a lot of views with me in a Labour Government, sitting on the other side of the House. I agreed with some of the things that he had to say, particularly on infrastructure, which perhaps at the end he will, I hope, look at. What I learned from those arguments is that there was controversy—the same as there is at the moment—about the route, the compensation and many other things. There was not felt to be a fair distribution of the transport investment between the north and the south. That is an issue again. We have heard again today about compensation; it is constantly a problem. Also, it was not considered to be value for money in those circumstances, and it was followed by financial collapse.

I do not know whether this project will have the same problem, but it is due to go right through until 2033, with the north not getting anything until 2020. In a sense, we are being told to hang on because something is coming to us in the north. I have to tell the House that with HS1 it was exactly the same—they even built the trains that were to go to the north and convinced the north to shout for it. We shouted for it and they cancelled it. That was the reality: it collapsed. So we never got the northern trains that were built; we had to sell them to Canada. But I will leave that aside.

What about the financial problems at the heart of it? Look at the scale of the increase: from £30 billion to £50 billion. That is in a few years, at almost £4 billion a year, and it will continue for the next 20 years. In this period of austerity, I wonder whether the second part of this investment might be called into question. Will we be told that it cannot be completed beyond Birmingham? Stand by for the message; we will see what will happen. But I believe in the European fast trains—there is no doubt about that—and I welcome David Higgins’s report. He has taken a more realistic look at the route, but there are still big issues to be sorted out on the timetable and the route.

To that extent, the Economic Affairs Committee of this House reported on the economics of High Speed. That report was very interesting, and it came to some of my conclusions that I am discussing today. First, it is not economically viable. The committee stated that it doubted its economic justification and put forward reasonable arguments for that, which the Government dispute. Secondly, it is not value for money. One recommendation I particularly like is the suggestion that the route be changed to start in the north so that there would be less controversy to begin with and it can be connected to the rest of the rail system in the north—euphemistically called HS3: these trains are not going to be running around like HS2. There are issues about connectivity but, nevertheless, the committee made a very good argument.

To that extent, a lot of the arguments are shared. As for HS3, it is suggested that we will have trains running at 250 mph between Leeds and Manchester. Franky, you would not get them up to full speed before you had to stop. But there is still an argument for connectivity and important transport, and the north has been ignored constantly when it comes to transport. If noble Lords think it is any different now, I ask them to look at the fact that they are planning and giving money to develop Crossrail 2 and we have not even finished Crossrail 1. It is billions compared to hundreds in the north, and the timetable is to start now in the south but not in the north. My point is that, basically, you could do something, and I want to suggest—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, might take it on board—that we look at the regional strategy that is necessary.

The real problem at the moment in trying to deal with these things is that we have “northern devolution”—which is neither northern nor hardly devolution but local government reform. But it is something that authorities have agreed with and is the game at the present time. We have local enterprise bodies that do not have the money, the resources or the powers to deal with the regional thing. All that, by the way, was in the Northern Way, which I launched as a Minister in 2006, working with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to look at how we would do it in the north. We put it forward. It was a structure and was regionally based. This is basically local government reform; it is a different system. It does not have the powers to make regional decisions. Let me give noble Lords a good example.

I was in Liverpool yesterday. I travelled up on the Pennine train. It was quite an experience—it was a bit like the Rock Island line—but, leaving that aside, I got to Hull at 11 pm and caught the train back at 6 am this morning. Basically, if you look at the regional dimension and if we are concerned about the north, why do we not develop the two greatest assets that it has got: the port of Liverpool and the port of Hull and Humber? They are the two gateways between a corridor that is going into Europe from the growing global development on the other side. To that extent, they are major assets. We are discussing access to Europe. I attended their conferences. They want the motorways of the seas argument to strengthen the arguments of the ports. Those two big super-ports, on different sides of the UK, represent a real strategy which we will need. We all know that trying to force the traffic through Dover is a mess. Congestion costs are terrible. Let us have a Northern Way solution.

The other assets are our estuaries, both the Humber and the Mersey. If we put those two things together, we can see that these are energy estuaries; they will be very important in dealing with climate change and energy. They are different sides of the same coin. We need to develop our estuaries. Therefore, when we come to the strategy of communication, it is a regional one; it is right across the north and it is what we have to do. We are now meeting across the two sides, in Merseyside and Humberside, looking at how we might strengthen that. So if you look at the present system which the high-speed link is connecting to, you see that it is a north-south project. I am not saying, “Don’t have it”; the Government have decided they are going to have it. I could have the argument about where it starts; I will continue to argue that you will get higher growth in the north than you will get in the south with this investment. But one is an industrial policy and the other is an urban policy.

The Government appear to be linking what is really Manchester and Leeds. They are becoming the London of the north and the Government are concentrating on that. It is urban, city development; it is not a strategy for industrial development of the north. But if we take the east-west strategy, which gives us Liverpool and Humberside, and then put them both together, we would want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who will be dealing with the infrastructure problems, “Yes, not just the Pennine link; look at the freight and the road and we can start doing that now”. It is not heavy expenditure. The Government say that they are agreed on it. Why do we have to wait until 2035 before we get any movement on these things?

The Government have promised to do something with Transport for the North. The trouble with Transport for the North is that it is controlled by the authorities of Sheffield, Newcastle, Merseyside, Manchester and Leeds; they are the ones with limited powers given to local government. We need a regional aspect here, a regional strategy. So you will get north-south, which is about urban connectivity, and an east-west, which is an industrial strategy. That would strengthen the economic growth in the north. It could start now—it does not need the kind of money that is needed for the development in the south—and we could start reducing the inequalities that exist in transport expenditure and other things between the north and the south.

The north has got to get itself together. Quite frankly, speaking as a politician from the north, we have not had much influence on the Government on this occasion. I think that we did on our Government, but I shall leave that aside. The northern economy has more people in it than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. We have a bigger population and are a bigger wealth creator but we do not make our mark. They get devolution and we get a co-ordinated or combined authority. It is time the north began to recognise that if you want something you had better shout for it and you had better get organised. We are a big force but we tend to be divided off between little bits of towns and cities. That is a political problem that I need to work on and shout about. It is not for the House of Lords.

I want to make these points about the north because, at the end of the day, when the infrastructure committee is considering infrastructure in the north, it should look at whether the timetable could be changed to take into account the regional concept. The Government do not agree with it or like it—Northern Way was about regions—but the committee, which I know is considering the matter, should look at how our roads and our railways could be developed in a quicker timetable to help maintain growth.

We need a strategy not only for north to south but also for east to west. One of the biggest industrial assets in the north will be maximised through the development of our super-ports and our estuaries. Put them together and you have a greater chance of a model of economic growth than the one that will be given to us by High Speed.