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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:04 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 2:04 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I have been sitting here feeling increasingly isolated, and I am very sorry to introduce a discordant note, but I suppose that someone has to, otherwise it is terribly one-sided. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not going to be critical of those who oppose the idea, because I totally oppose it. Just one word on his speech: it is all very well to plant new things, and I know a bit about that, but they are not the same as established landscapes, old trees and old things. That is what people are concerned about. New is good in many ways, and we are all for it, but old has an awful lot going for it as well.

I do not know whether we will give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading. It did not get an unopposed Second Reading down in the House of Commons. Traditionally, we do, so I suppose that we will, but I am sorry about that, because I am always anxious to register my concern about this sort of thing and it is sad not to be able to.

I have not spoken to anybody outside the Westminster bubble who is in favour of the scheme, when it is put to them. The reasons for it are, perhaps, to do with capacity, although that is uncertain. The idea of spending all this money just to get quickly to Birmingham seems ridiculous to most people. There is a touch of the Emperor’s new clothes about the whole thing. HS2 fantasises about the advantages it will bring and the huge disadvantages it will smoothly overcome. It is ridiculously expensive in time, money and potential damage to the environment. I believe that it is really ill-conceived at this time.

It will cost £55 billion, with the first phase finishing, it is hoped, in 2026 and the second phase in 2034—a total of 18 years’ disruption. All to get from London to Birmingham a little more quickly, which I do not think is a particularly good idea. We are not France; we are not Germany; we are not a big country. We do not have to sprint from here to there. The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, said earlier that by the time the train had got up speed from Manchester to Leeds, I think it was, it would be slowing down again. How ridiculous can one get? It will have a potentially disastrous effect on the countryside, on the Chilterns and the precious area of outstanding natural beauty there.

So far, there have been 21,833 responses to the proposals, and it does not speak well for HS2’s handling of them, or its future operations, that the parliamentary ombudsman stated in a report that,

“overall HS2 Ltd’s actions fell below the reasonable standards we would expect, so much so that they constituted maladministration”.

We have heard today from several speakers who support the Bill in principle, but then went on to worry about it, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor. Those worries have been magnified and multiplied from one end of the country to the other. Inexplicably, and sadly, no consideration has been given to sensible and professionally produced alternative schemes, such as High Speed UK, which is cheaper, provides much better connectivity to stations throughout the country and avoids sensitive landscape areas. Why have those not been considered? Perhaps the Minister can tell us in his response.

So many issues do not seem to have been resolved. The trains may well not be able to travel at the speeds predicted. I cite a report from some time ago:

“In the research, completed last year, Prof Peter Woodward, one of the world’s leading experts in the geo-engineering of railways, found that the speeds proposed by HS2—faster than any other high-speed line in the world—would create ‘critical track velocity effects’ and ‘significant issues’ with track instability … He said that speeds as high as those planned by HS2 could cause ‘rapid deterioration of the track, ballast and sub-ballast, including possible derailment and ground failure’.

The report continued:

“The disclosures are the latest blow to the scheme, viewed by many even in the rail industry as unnecessary. Last week, it emerged that the National Audit Office, which has been fiercely critical of HS2, was to begin a third review”.

I have already briefly mentioned connectivity. It appears that HS2 will extend to a number of major centres, but will leave out many of our existing stations that people currently use. If you live near one of these new stations, fine, but if not you will have to get to them, or suffer the service you are left with at your local station. I feel that I am missing something somewhere.

The House of Commons voted the Bill through with a massive majority but, in Committee, barely looked at its 69 clauses and 32 schedules—I am sure that noble Lords have all seen the Bill. They were barely touched on. That leaves quite a job for your Lordships’ House to do. It is a mystery to me why that happened.

How far would £55 billion go in other ways—in lengthening platforms, extending and improving trains, upgrading existing lines, or doing sensible things with the connections in the north? The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, talked about Liverpool to Hull; how much good could that kind of money do? There are so many ways in which that kind of money could be spent. We must remember that our own House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee reported just a year ago that:

“The Government has yet to make a convincing case for proceeding with the project”.

Yet proceeding it is.

If the Government do proceed with this scheme, we must insist that they do so with minimum detriment to the landscape through which the route passes. Everything possible must be done to preserve and protect the countryside, particularly the Chilterns and the area of outstanding natural beauty. If a long tunnel is needed to protect this area, a properly constructed tunnel of necessary length must be provided. Whatever the cost—taken in the context of this total spend of £55 billion, and for the sake of future generations—this must be insisted upon. Perhaps the Minister can reassure us on this point. There is no point doing half or three-quarters of a job; let us do a proper job for future generations.

I conclude by repeating that I simply cannot believe that a sensible nation is embarking on such an ill thought out and foolhardy scheme. If it succeeds in getting through this House, I wish it well, but I fear the worst. Whatever happens, the environment and the people on its route must not be made to suffer for such a venture.