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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:25 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 2:25 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I strongly support HS2 and the Bill, albeit from a position, as your Lordships will hear, of agitated frustration. In doing so, I entirely recognise the importance of everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, just said in her notably eloquent speech.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain led the world in building infrastructure. Almost 200 years ago, for instance, the “Rocket” was commissioned for the new line from Liverpool to Manchester. Later, London constructed by far the best underground and overground rail network of any major city in the world, from which London and the wider nation have benefited mightily ever since. Yet in the last 50 years or so, as a country we have drifted shamefully behind the rest of the developed world in every category of infrastructure, as the noble Lord, Lord Mair, underlined in his truly authoritative maiden speech.

When I worked at No. 10, I led a team from the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit and the Department for Transport to look at the UK’s transport networks. We established that the UK had by far the worst transport infrastructure in the developed world. We also analysed the causes: the persistent failure by Governments of both major parties to maintain their commitment to invest, resulting in far lower investment in infrastructure as a share of GDP than any other developed country. Anyone who travels can experience the yawning gap between the UK’s and other countries’ infrastructures that has emerged over these past 50 years. I well remember, as may other noble Lords, travelling in France in my 20s on run-down roads and shabby, slow-running trains. Yet for decades now France has had a comprehensive motorway network and a superb system of high-speed rail.

Some see infrastructure spend as a huge cost. There have been echoes of this today. It is not. It is an investment and its benefit—its payback—spreads over many decades, perhaps even centuries. Yes, we need infrastructure that minimises the impact on the environment and on the people and communities affected by it. We must invest in that as well, in the Chilterns and elsewhere. But modern infrastructure is a necessity which not only underpins the economy but promotes a better travel experience and enhances individual lives, as a bypass does when it takes long-distance strategic traffic out of villages and towns—an all-round gain.

We are indeed a crowded island, although we have a far inferior infrastructure than other countries just as crowded as we are. Moreover, and no one has mentioned this yet, we are experiencing the most rapid growth in population in our history; and that growth is forecast to continue. In 20 years, we are likely to be a country of 75 million people. That is an argument for more, not less, infrastructure if we are to avoid gridlock and chaos, and protect our wonderful countryside.

In the UK, as many have touched on, we move at a snail’s pace. More than 10 years ago, when I was at No. 10, the decision was made in principle to proceed with a high-speed rail network and, incidentally, new nuclear build. Yet more than 10 years later, construction on neither has yet begun. At the same time we crawl towards a decision, or possibly more procrastination, on expanding the world’s most strategic airport at Heathrow. While we slumber, in the past seven years China has built 6,000 miles of high-speed rail in that populous, mountainous country. When HS2 is complete, we as a country will be at a puny 200 miles, so that is 6,000 against 200. For HS2, from a decision in principle to cutting the ribbon, it will be 30 years. Our politics is severely inhibiting good government, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, reminded us a moment ago.

There are many reasons for our low productivity as a nation but the lack of a fit-for-purpose transport infrastructure is certainly one. Beyond rail, our road network—which I remind the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, who is not in his place, facilitates over 90% of journeys and is far more important economically than rail—is chronically congested, as we all know and experience. There appears to be no prospect at all of our investing in what we most need as a country: a strategic road network designed for long-distance strategic travel, linking our cities, ports and airports. The infrastructure commission is a highly welcome step in the right direction and with his breezy optimism the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is its greatest asset. It might eliminate some of the opportunistic politics, cowardice and lack of vision, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, also referred, which have plagued our major infrastructure projects for half a century. So full steam ahead for the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, please.

I conclude with two specific points. First, it is a false economy and deeply foolish not to connect Heathrow from the off to HS2. Just a few months ago, I was in Cologne when my plane was cancelled. I took a high-speed rail journey from Cologne to Frankfurt, which took an hour. The train arrives at the terminal in an airport which, by the way, serves Germany’s fifth-biggest city and has—guess what?—four runways. I stepped off the train into the terminal.

I make my second point as a Liverpudlian. The failure to build out HS2 to the city of my upbringing is a massive reverse for that city, which is still trying to overcome the adverse forces of history. When HS2 is built, Manchester will be 1 hour and 7 minutes from London while Liverpool will be 1 hour and 32 minutes from it—in round figures, an hour to Manchester but an hour and a half to Liverpool. This is a huge psychological difference for investors and business travellers, and a nail in the coffin of the Liverpool economy. It needs a fast connection to London as well as to the proposed new fast link to Manchester, Leeds and Hull, to which the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, referred, if Liverpool is again to thrive.

Can the Minister say in his concluding remarks whether Liverpool and Heathrow will, in his view, ever be connected to HS2? Also, what percentage of GDP do the Government believe should be invested in national transport infrastructure over the next two decades? That is a not unreasonable question, given that that is exactly the kind of span implicit in the Bill. How does that figure compare with the investment of other leading European nations over the past 40 years? If the UK is to compete on a global stage, we need to create a cross-party consensus on infrastructure and to identify what a fast-growing country needs over the longer term. We need to increase our investment greatly and speed up significantly our decision-making. But, for this one small step that is HS2, let us be grateful.