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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:19 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 3:19 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, you wait for ages for a Transport Secretary and then five of them come along at the same time. I am but a humble people carrier compared with the fleet of previous Secretaries of State who have gone before, but I want to do what some of them have done, which is to put this Bill in a slightly broader context of previous transport infrastructure projects. I say that having announced just over 20 years ago that London & Continental Railways was selected as the winning consortium for HS1.

HS2, as the numbering implies, was a lower priority at that time. The capacity problem on the west coast main line was not what it is now—as we have heard, there has been a tremendous boost since privatisation. At the same time, we were committed to Crossrail, to Thameslink and to a number of light-rail schemes in Manchester and Croydon. To have gone along to the Treasury at the same time and asked for HS2 would have been to test its patience.

However, 20 years later, with most of the heavy lifting on Crossrail and Thameslink behind us, and with the capacity problems on the west coast main line acute, there is now not just the need but the capacity for another major transport infrastructure, extending HS1 to the north to improve connectivity with the north of the country and addressing the capacity on the existing network. So I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Bill. If I have a slight doubt, it is about the interface between Euston and King’s Cross St Pancras, which a number of other noble Lords have referred to.

I am, however, aware that the Bill has its opponents. It is instructive to look back and see what was said about HS1. Were the same criticisms made and were they in the light of hindsight justified? I spent part of the Easter Recess going back through the debates on HS1. There was a Second Reading in another place on 16 January 1995. The MP for Dover asserted that the CTRL was “economically unjustified”, that the public sector was being asked for a blank cheque and that the subsidies could be unlimited. Another MP described himself as a long-standing Chunnel and rail link sceptic. The debate was dominated by MPs from Kent and east London raising, wholly legitimately, issues of inadequate compensation for blight, the impact of noise and environmental concerns. There were repeated requests for tunnelling, and requests for conditions on working hours and removal of spoil.

That debate to some extent puts this one in context, in that I have met no one who, 21 years later, argues that we were wrong to go ahead with HS1, despite the problems that confronted the Government and the contractors at the time. I believe that, in 2036, our successors will say we were right to go ahead with HS2 despite the objections that were made, some of which I hope may still be dealt with by the Select Committee.

The problem in the UK is not that we rush into ill-considered infrastructure projects but that we prevaricate too long about essential ones. To those who have doubts about the wisdom of this investment, I would just say this as someone who has served both in transport and the Treasury. We are living through the most intense downward pressure on public expenditure in my lifetime, particularly intense for those departments, like Transport, whose budgets are not protected. Against that background, to have got this item of expenditure through the Treasury and to have got its commitment to expenditure beyond the normal three-year envelope shows that even the most hard-nosed and sceptical men and women who guard public expenditure have recognised the value and importance of HS2.

On top of the direct transport benefits of HS1, it led to regeneration of the area around Stratford and King’s Cross. I believe that HS2 will have the same regenerative impact on the stations along the route, crucially this time not located in London and the south-east but north, helping to move the centre of gravity of the country to the north. HSBC has already cited the impact of HS2 as a factor in its decision to locate its head office in Birmingham.

Many changes have already been made to the Bill. More than 20% of the total route length is now in a tunnel, up from an initial from 8.9%, including nearly all the route through London and through the Chilterns to South Heath, as well as several cut-and-cover “green tunnels” further north, together with caps and restrictions on traffic in urban areas affected by construction.

As a former Housing Minister, I commend the introduction of the rent back scheme, one of the innovations here, whereby homeowners who are affected by the scheme can continue to live in their homes as tenants, having sold them to the Government, until such time as they want to move out. I also commend the extension of the exceptional hardship scheme, whereby those living some way from the line, but not covered by the statutory scheme, can none the less sell to the Government at pre-blight price. I hope that promoters of future legislation, be it HS3, Crossrail 2 or any airport expansion scheme, will learn from and build on these initiatives to smooth the passage of such crucial projects.

That brings me to the second and final point I want to make, which relates to reducing the gestation period between the conception of a project such as this and its delivery. I refer to chapter 8 of the report of the Select Committee on this Bill in another place, which identifies the problems with the current hybrid Bill process, virtually unchanged since Gilbert wrote “Iolanthe”. As Chief Whip in the last Parliament, it was my job to invite colleagues to serve on the Select Committee. I pay tribute to their work, but it required exceptional powers of persuasion. The task may be more challenging in your Lordships’ House, where a higher percentage of Members have outside interests than is the case in the other place—I make it clear that I am not volunteering for a place on this committee. I think that there is a case for looking at our procedures on hybrid Bills and seeing whether they might be brought into the 21st century. They place an unreasonable burden on legislators and create unnecessary delays for the promoters, and there may be a better way of dealing with them.

From the point of view of the promoter, the Department for Transport, the time the current parliamentary procedures take before progress can be made will be nearly three years in the case of this Bill—and, of course, that is after all the preliminary work and preparation of the financial case have been done. From Parliament’s point of view, the amount of time that had to be spent by six MPs in this case was 160 days of sittings spread over nearly two years and over two Parliaments. Those serving on such committees typically sit on Monday afternoons, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and afternoons, and Thursday mornings, inevitably crowding out some of their other parliamentary commitments.

Chapter 8 of the Select Committee report is, unusually, devoted to a critique of the current process and to suggestions for improvements. At the end of the chapter, the committee says:

“We leave it to others to determine the means by which the kind of reforms we have outlined … might be implemented … We urge the House, and Ministers, to consider such changes in good time before the next hybrid bill is introduced”.

The promoter, the Department for Transport, responded to the Select Committee report in these terms:

“In chapter 8 of the report, the Select Committee makes some recommendations in relation to the procedure for dealing with hybrid Bills. The Government is considering whether there should be a review of how the hybrid Bill process works, and of the Standing Orders for Private Business that apply to hybrid Bills, and is discussing with the House Authorities how such a review could be taken forward. We would expect that the Select Committee’s recommendations would be fully considered within any such review”.

I believe that any initiative should come from the Houses rather than the Government because Parliament is adjudicating between the Executive and the petitioners in the hybrid Bill process, and a review at the behest of the Executive might not be seen as impartial. It is important to keep if we can the key components of the process, particularly the rights of petitioners. If, as the Select Committee suggests, changes are to be made before the next hybrid Bill, HS3, coming down the track next July, we may need to make progress.

In the mean time, I hope that the signals remain at green, the track ahead remains clear and the Bill reaches its destination in good time.