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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:24 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 1:24 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I pay tribute to her knowledge. I am stilling trying to visualise lipstick on a pig, but apart from that I go along with almost everything she has said. I congratulate my noble friend on the way he introduced the Bill, and the House generally on the way this Bill and this project has made progress, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his outstanding contribution and speech. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mair, on a first-class maiden speech. We should take note that this country is, I think he said, 28th in the world on infrastructure. We might also take note of the fact that this House continues to attract to it people of his expertise, which is a tremendous attribute to the House and something we should make rather better known to the outside world.

My first reaction to the Bill is how things have changed: how we are now planning ahead for railway use 20 to 30 years in the future. That contrasts—I see the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, agreeing with me—quite strongly with the position I encountered when I became Transport Secretary in the first Thatcher Government. The advice coming in then was anything but for expansion. Railways was rather the National Health Service of the transport world: all the problems were there, together with some fairly hairy solutions. I remember that one of the Prime Minister’s advisers, Alan Walters, was asked to look at the industry. One of his propositions to Cabinet was that “many experts” believed that the Government should examine the options for reducing the rail network. He never quite said who these experts were, but that was his proposition. Another fashionable proposition was that, as most people used cars, we should convert the closed lines to roads. One or two of us remember that debate as well. I am glad to say, with the help of my friends not just in government but on the other side of the House, such as the noble Lord, Lord Snape, and with one or two outside at that time, such as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, we saw off all these rather silly propositions.

Personally, I am delighted to see the development in demand that has taken place since then. Far from being consigned to some scrapheap of transport history, railways are now so popular that they face the severe capacity problem we have heard about. Whatever decision we take, that issue needs to be faced, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, so rightly said. Twice as many people travel by train every day than did so 20 years ago. Most forecasts show that the trains will be increasingly full by the mid-2020s, with the prospect that, in some areas, people will queue up to get on to the train to get to work. That is a pretty fearsome prospect.

There is a problem and it will only get worse. The Government have rightly proposed an ambitious and, I admit, expensive project. The only trouble is that we in this country do not have the greatest record on such projects. I think back to Maplin, which might at this moment have saved us a lot of debate on the future of airport capacity, and to the Channel Tunnel, which took 100-odd years to come to fruition. Indeed, it was half accidental that the project got the final green light at all, because at the beginning of the Thatcher years President Mitterrand and some of his Ministers came over to London and to No. 10. As it happened, we were not exactly soulmates: my opposite number was a communist. In fact, it was a very good and civilised meeting. There was only one problem: we had to issue a communique at the end but it was difficult to know what to say about what we had agreed upon. It was then that Lady Thatcher remembered that I had been pressing the case for the Channel Tunnel. She adopted the policy, put it into the communique and the issue was agreed. Perhaps the lesson of all this is that we are always delighted to have the Department for Transport pushing forward projects—that is right—but it is even better to have No. 10 behind you as well.

Of course, we have waited a very long time for this new railway line. We are way behind countries such as France and Germany in high-speed rail. It is 120 years since we built the last mainline railway north of London. For a whole range of reasons, building it is exactly the right step to take. I was a Birmingham Member of Parliament for almost 30 years. In that time, I saw the transformation—backed in a bipartisan way—into a modern, attractive city with all the attributes you would expect: two excellent universities, a world-famous orchestra, and financial and legal centres. It is already a dynamic city but it can only improve its prospects with this high-speed line. Modern transport links make it possible for the city—indeed, for the whole West Midlands region generally—to attract new business and help develop the many good businesses already there. This is another way of saying that it is good for business and jobs. Perhaps not always recognised in quite the same way, it is also where people have the chance of relocating to a quality of life they do not necessarily get in overcrowded London or the south-east.

I make one proviso: I do not want to suggest that this one line, however important, should crowd out all other development spending. In the West Midlands, there are other, vital cities and towns. For example, the right reverend Prelate pointed out the position regarding Coventry and the surrounding area. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, that we should share the advantages of rail development. However, it takes me as long to travel to Portsmouth, for example, as it does to get to Birmingham, although it is about half the distance. That is not a satisfactory position.

As far as my other bit of travel by rail is concerned—on underground rail—I thought the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, was rather kind about transport in London. I point to the District line and the Wimbledon service, for which I hold the Minister personally and absolutely responsible. There, you see people struggling down iron staircases with enormous suitcases. You see young mothers with their buggies. There is not a lift or an escalator in sight. To my personal knowledge, that situation has been going on for the last 30 or 40 years and there is still no prospect of change. When the annunciator system says that the next train is going to Victoria, you can bet your bottom dollar it will go to Edgware Road. I make one proposition to the Minister—it is the easiest pledge he will have to make today. I know that he will agree to accompany me one morning on one of these journeys down the District line from Wimbledon. I look forward to that.

Lastly, there are already calls for public ownership of the railways, including in the context of this line. Frankly, I am not an entirely uncritical supporter of the present structure but I say as gently and objectively as I can that people should be careful exactly what they wish for. For two and a half years, I was Secretary of State in charge of a nationalised industry: the railways. The actual position was that British Rail had Ministers and transport department civil servants peering over its shoulder, and then it had Treasury officials debating constantly and usually refusing every request for investment. Try getting electrification past the Treasury. We did that in the end, but we waded through blood to do so. That is not the ideal way to run an industry. Whatever else, I hope we can agree that the last nationalisation model was not a perfect example.

There are obviously important issues to sort out, not least the connections in London—a point rightly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. However, I totally support the concept generally. It will mark the beginning of a transformation in the railway links in this country to the benefit of industry, commerce and jobs. I look forward to discussing my ideas further with my noble friend on our journey down the District line.