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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:07 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 1:07 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Mair, to full membership of the House. A number of us will have noticed that he has been around our premises for some time because he was introduced a few months ago. That speaks too of the careful way in which he has allowed himself to understand our procedures and our processes and thus to fit in better with how we operate, and indeed that has been very well brought out in the excellence of his maiden speech. I congratulate him on it and I think that it might become a model of the genre for those who come after him.

As we know, the Cross Benches play an enormous part in our work. Many of us can justify our existence by saying, “Look at the quality of the debates we have here”, but of course we rely heavily on those who are sitting opposite me to be able to justify that claim. But it is a sincere measure of what I say because the gravitas and experience that come with the sort of people who are appointed to the Cross Benches is important to the way in which we look after the responsibilities we have been given in terms of making sure that the Government are held to account and that scrutiny is done in the public interest.

The noble Lord’s curriculum vitae, which I am afraid I picked up only early this morning because I did not realise that I would make the response— I apologise if there is anything I may have missed—is quite large, if I may put it that way. It runs to five closely typed pages and that does not count the 160 periodical and other publications that he mentions modestly but does not actually list. I will check those later and I am sorry that I have not had time to read them. The noble Lord was right to mention his academic experience, and we value that. I think that he was a bit modest about his industrial experience because as well as saving Big Ben, over the past few years he seems to have had a hand in just about every other major infrastructure project all across the world, not just in the UK. He is clearly an extraordinary Renaissance man, if that is not too high praise, and he will surely enrich our discussions. He ended his speech by quoting a slightly unusual person to go to for a reference, His Royal Highness Prince Philip. But he is absolutely right that we have far too few engineers in our Chambers, and we welcome him.

The fact that we are welcoming today somebody with such a wide range of experience, both academic and industrial, suggests that we do not always cherish those who have that particular formation and background. For example, the Companion teaches us how to refer to our colleagues: there are special words and phrases for those with military and legal experience, but we do not treat our academics in the same way. I wonder whether we ought to change that. I had a bit of difficulty thinking up what to say, but we could try it out for a bit; when the noble Lord rises to speak again, as I hope he will, we should refer to him as the “noble and expert Lord”. What do your Lordships think? Shall we give it a go? In any case, we welcome the noble Lord and look forward to his further contributions.

I was very reassured to hear the Minister speaking about the wide powers that will go to the Select Committee. I will be listening very carefully to the answers he gives to the questions asked by my noble friend Lord Rosser when he responds.

In a representative democracy, there are limited opportunities for individual citizens to be engaged in the parliamentary process. The hybrid Bill processes in Parliament provide an important and valuable opportunity for ordinary citizens to protect their private interests when these are being engaged by powerful private and public organisations. However inconvenient for the Government, Parliament must never abuse the trust placed in us by so many people.

I declare an interest as my family and I live in Little Missenden, a village within the Chilterns AONB. I am also a member of the Chiltern Way Federation academy school in Wendover. I do not oppose the Bill but I wish it could be improved. I hope that, before it starts hearing from petitioners, the Select Committee will visit the planned route to get an impression of the issues which are still causing such concern in places such as the Chilterns. I also hope it will get expert advice not just from the promoter, but from others who have expertise and knowledge about the plans.

It will also be important to reflect on the experiences of the Commons Select Committee, and learn from them. Listening to the sessions in the other place and reading the transcripts, one is left with a feeling that what the Commons Select Committee described as the “heavy burden of petitioning”, was a chore it had to endure and not an opportunity for finding a resolution. The fact that so many petitioners raised similar points and sought the same mitigation—in the case of the Chilterns, a bored long tunnel—was seen as a problem and not a rather obvious clue about where the solution to the petitioners’ concerns lay.

I have to say that the mood at present in the Chilterns from those who tried to engage with the Commons Select Committee is very negative about the experience and there is considerable disenchantment from many people who felt frustrated and patronised. This is not good for democracy, and it is important that the Lords Select Committee can recover some of the ground lost, in the public interest.

Secondly, I hope that the Lords Select Committee will ensure that it considers the wider public interest issues raised by the decision to take the line out of a deep tunnel at South Heath in the middle of the Chilterns, and to continue at surface level to Wendover. There were more than 800 petitions from individuals and action groups about the Chilterns tunnel. All the local councils called for a long tunnel through the Chilterns, and recommendations from the statutory bodies concerned with the Chilterns that a deep, long tunnel was the only possible mitigation to the potential damage caused were framed in as strong a language as is permissible by bodies that receive grant in aid these days.

While the volume and intensity of the petitions surely pointed to the need to give very careful consideration to a bored long tunnel through the Chilterns, the Select Committee appeared at all times, almost to the point of perversity, to be dismissive of that approach. It seemed as though the sole purpose of the committee was to narrow the arguments down to the harm that the project would cause to an individual, and how that might be ameliorated by sound barriers and the like, rather than exploring ways in which this harm could be prevented in the first place—by a tunnel. It was this unwillingness to engage in the wider public interest in the Chilterns that caused so much distress and disillusionment among the petitioners, to which I have already referred.

Thirdly, what is missing at the moment—and it is a very glaring gap—is an independent analysis of what additional costs might be incurred by making provision for a long bored tunnel through the whole of the Chilterns AONB, the benefits which would accrue from preserving nearly all of the AONB if a tunnel were provided, and what the losses would be if the scheme goes ahead in its current form.

When he introduced the Economic Committee’s report on HS2 last September, my noble friend Lord Hollick said, perhaps a little unfairly, that HS2 was,

“a project of faith … supported … by overblown rhetoric”.

He pointed out the need for,

“a rigorous, independent and transparent appraisal of the costs and benefits of this huge undertaking”.—[Official Report,16/9/15; col. 1850]

The Commons Select Committee expressed “scepticism” of the costs of tunnelling bandied about by all parties, including the promoter, but took no action to expose what these costs actually are. The Lords Select Committee must ensure that this information is made available in the public interest, either directly or by commissioning an independent analysis. Not to do so will further erode people’s faith in the democratic process.

Finally, I hope that one of the key debates in the Committee stages of the Bill will be whether this country values its designated areas of outstanding natural beauty. What should we do when the need for infrastructure improvements impacts on our natural environment and, in particular, our national parks and AONBs? This argument, to protect areas of national importance, is not one against the building of infrastructure as such—it is an argument in favour of ensuring that such developments are sustainable and do not damage irretrievably the quality of our natural environment—an environment that, once gone, cannot be replaced.

We have heard much about the economic case for HS2 but rather less about the case for the natural environment. In all this, the case for the long bored tunnel through the Chilterns seems to have been ignored. So I want to set it out now briefly, for the record, and as a basis for amendments that I hope to move in later stages.

Under the Bill before us today, approximately 8.5 kilometres of the Chilterns AONB will have a major twin-track railway line built on it, running at surface level. It is proposed to have 18 trains an hour each way, which will cause noise and vibration. Large infrastructure projects going through relatively unspoiled countryside will effectively urbanise it. Maintenance activity will take place all night. The trains will cause light pollution, and parts of the route will have fixed lighting. There will be security fencing and sound proofing baffles, maintenance roads, balancing ponds, power lines and gantries, planting and huge earthwork bunds to mitigate the noise emanating from operations, and the soil from cuttings will be deposited right across the Chilterns.

The materials being introduced are not natural; the scale is grotesque and the overall impact is to introduce alien, cityscape elements into a predominantly rural environment. The attempt by the promoter to minimise the impact of these intrusions into the AONB, for example, by arguing:

“It’s really only a very, very small percentage impact, less than 1% impact”,

is as demeaning as it is misleading.

The clue is in the title: the Chilterns is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is an irreplaceable resource. We can put the earth back on a cut-and-cover tunnel; we can grass it and grow some new trees. But we will not have what age and interaction with people and their dwellings over centuries have produced in the rich patina of a landscape that is largely unchanged since pre-Saxon times, and which is the key reason why it has merited an AONB designation.

Designation as an AONB brings with it a statutory requirement on Ministers to do what they can to conserve and enhance our higher quality English landscapes and protect their scenic beauty. Is it really in the national interest to destroy 8.5 kilometres of outstanding natural beauty, when for a small additional cost, the AONB can be protected for the long term?

How can the Secretary of State say that he is fulfilling the Government’s statutory obligation “to conserve and enhance” when he proposes to build two substantial viaducts, four kilometres of cuttings, 1.7 kilometres of embankments, a green tunnel, six compounds with hard standing and seven bridges? It is just ridiculous.

The National Planning Policy Framework says that major development should not take place in AONBs except in exceptional circumstances, and after appropriate tests have been made. HS2 itself has accepted that a Chiltern long tunnel would provide overall environmental benefits compared to the HS2 proposed scheme during operation and construction. It also confirms that such a tunnel would not adversely affect the programme for the completion of HS2.

Time and again, petitioners to the Commons Select Committee made it clear that they wanted to discuss how and under what conditions the committee would agree to a tunnel through the Chilterns. Every time the committee was unable or unwilling to engage. It took the view that the case for the bored long tunnel “had not been made”, before it had heard any of the individual petitions, and without ever having defined what might constitute such a case.

I suspect that HS2 will always be, “a project of faith supported by overblown rhetoric”. People might be much more willing to support HS2 if they knew that the only AONB on the line had been preserved by a Government who were open and transparent about what they wanted to do, comfortable about discussing the costs of the project, and determined to preserve our natural heritage.