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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 1:54 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, it was a privilege to be present for the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mair. I hope that he will much enjoy his membership of this House.

This is my fourth public show of support for HS2. I spoke in the take note debate in October 2013 and in the Second Reading of the preparation Bill in November 2013. Then in 2015 for some reason I got a bit annoyed at a very home counties-centric, anti-HS2 essay in the Financial Times from one of its contributing editors, and it published my response in its columns. I was not alone in my view. Of course, those contributions and this one today disqualify me from being a member of your Lordships’ committee on the Bill. Indeed, only anyone without a view ever expressed need apply. That is an absolutely crazy way to legislate. We are all disqualified if we have expressed an opinion at any time. We are all fingered—whether you are for or against, it does not matter; you cannot serve on the Bill. I do not think that that is a very good way to legislate.

In some ways, I sometimes feel that I live in a country which has lost its nerve on serious projects, whether they be roads, railways, airports or indeed the potential for new factories on green fields. England has, at most, 12% to 13% of its land area built on. We are not short of land.

I just want to make a general point before I go into a little detail on one aspect. I take second place to nobody in supporting proper health and safety rules, regulation on the right to trade union representation, equality in the workplace, and equal pay and training opportunities, but I think that we have gone mad on consultation throughout the whole of society. That was one of the biggest shocks I had when I came into government after being an MP for more than 20 years; we are consultation mad, especially on planning.

On major projects we are even worse. As someone has just said, in the main those major projects are for the next generation and the ones to follow. They are not for today’s generation. We set the decision-making at the lowest level nearest the project, which means that nothing happens for years and years. Those wanting to invest walk away, the orders are not made, the factories shrink, industries decline and the rot sets in. Does steel ring any bells? That is the pattern of what has happened in the last few decades.

I know that there are exceptions, and of course we are dealing with one today, but there are urgent projects on energy and transport which are needed for the future and on which we have lost decades as they get shunted into a cul-de-sac. The nation and its people are the losers, because these projects are for future generations, not today’s vested interests; it is tomorrow’s people’s interests that we have to look at.

After listening to 1,500 petitions in the Commons—the elected House—substantial additions have been made to the Bill and, in any event, I understand that massive changes have been made outside the Commons Select Committee process. Tunnelling has gone from less than 9% to 20% of the route, and it is on the record that the elected House voted 399 to 44 for the Bill. So why does this unelected House have to go through the same process? Ours should be the secondary Chamber aspect—the big-picture view. We should be looking at what has been done in the House of Commons and whether it has ticked all the key boxes. Has it made sure that all the key issues are being dealt with? We in this House do not represent anybody—we do not boast of doing that—but collectively we represent the nation as a whole, and I think that we should take that much wider view. I do not think that our focus should be on the specific field boundaries and hamlets, nor indeed on individuals. It was the role of the elected House to do that. We should ask whether the key issues have been taken care of.

There is a list of several key issues. I shall not go detail on any of any of them but they include capacity, costs, jobs, skills, growth opportunities, compensation for those affected and connectivity—all of which are very important. I just want to mention the environment. Two hundred and eighty hectares of new woodland will be created, seven major rivers will be diverted, there will be 7 million square metres of landscape planting and 17 million square metres of habitat will be created. I had to smile when I saw the next one on the list. There will be over 300 kilometres of new replacement hedgerow as a result of HS2. I was reminded that in the 1990s there was a six-year period when farmers grubbed up 25% of the hedgerows in England. I do not recall any rows or moans from the NGOs at that time. Two hundred kilometres of noise barrier are planned. All phase 1 stations will receive a BREEAM excellent rating and there will be no net loss of biodiversity from phase 1.

If I have one comment on the list provided by HS2 in its briefing, it relates to the BREEAM rating for the stations. “Excellent” sounds good but it is not the top rating; it is only the fourth out of five. “Outstanding” is the top BREEAM rating. We can be proud of BREEAM assessments, which were invented in the UK by the Building Research Establishment more than 20 years ago and are used in more than 70 countries. More than 2 million buildings in the world have now been assessed under BREEAM. My view is: why are none of the stations outstanding? Why have we settled for the fourth grade, not the fifth? That is my one minor criticism. It is a world standard and we ought to aim for the top of the ratings.

Around the country, business leaders, the CBI, the chambers of commerce and local government leaders can see plans being made now due to the Government’s determination to press ahead. This is a reality in many parts of the country. It is becoming clear that they do not have to be located on the line or at the station to see and reap the benefits; there is a genuine widespread benefit to infrastructure and investment in the country.

It is unusual for Governments of both major parties to have grabbed the issue and seen it through, and I obviously welcome that. It is a surprise to some—and very good to see, let us make no bones about it—that the flakiness once present on my side seems to have disappeared altogether, because there was flakiness both in this House and the other place. This genuine joint effort on an all-party basis will have a genuine effect, and has had already, on investment in capacity in skills and training. That can provide a massive boost for the country, which has in some ways has lost its nerve on other big issues. Crossrail is there, but it is buried, it is not in the public psyche at present, and in any case it is a London-centric thing. But this one could capture the imagination and give a boost to confidence in other big infrastructure projects, for which we are crying out and which have been lost for years.

I am not at all critical of those who oppose or who use the process for delay. As I said, I criticise the process, but my view is that as it is there, use it. I think it should be changed. Some people want to delay or even thwart the project. It will be for the committee to assess, for example, local authorities who arrive with more demands on detail but, when you check their top line, it is, “We are opposed”. The other day, I was looking at the computers working away on all the stuff that has come in in the past week. One of the first things I saw was: “We are opposed to this in principle”, followed by a big list of demands in detail. It is for the committee to look at that.

I have read all the material, and, in the main, the NGOs say that they are not opposed or, indeed, that they accept the case. But then they make a whole list of demands which would make the project—I will not say impossible, but the Commons has already looked at this. That is the point: the Commons has looked at this already. Something else that jumped out of my file was that, two years ago now, in February 2014, we all received the Institute of Directors’ quality flagship policy journal, Big Picture, with a very anti-HS2 cover story. The article inside stated that members were against, but, as far as I could see—and I checked yesterday—it did not quote a single named member of the IoD. But it was a massive propaganda piece against HS2.

I think that we have to get away from some of the excessive consultation, which reduces everything to the lowest common denominator. That will always encourage reaction against the process and pressure for inaction. I am not in favour of riding over people’s views—I do not mean that at all—but, nevertheless, we have gone over the top, to the detriment of the national aim for future generations. Although this will not go down well with some people, the losers are not today’s adults but today’s children. They are the losers by the way we are operating at present.

I wish the Bill well. I hope that the committee will get on with it under the crushing procedures it has to work to. In my view, the line should already be half way up or down the country.