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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Turnbull Lord Turnbull Crossbench 3:32 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, like many, I welcome the arrival of the noble and expert Lord, Lord Mair, to this House. We should also congratulate the House of Lords Appointments Commission on its foresight in appointing an eminent civil engineer and one of the world’s leading experts on tunnelling just as this Bill arrives here. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

My view on the Bill can be briefly stated. I strongly support the objectives of the project as a whole, but I have doubts about some aspects of it—in particular the question of speed; I have never quite understood the 400 kilometres per hour proposal—and it is plain that the London approach has not yet been satisfactorily resolved. The Bill should be amended to require a full comparative study of the alternatives for Euston before any final decisions are taken and any deemed planning approvals are granted. In the mean time, Old Oak Common should be planned as an interim terminus and, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, full disclosure should be made by the promotors, the Department for Transport, HS2 and the Treasury of the research, if any, on alternative options. I shall deal with each of these in turn.

The HS2 project was examined by the Economic Affairs Committee before I joined it and the committee reached a rather sceptical view of the economic justification, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe. From a historic perspective, I take a rather more positive view. The history of major railway projects is that they have had a major transforming effect on the economy and on society. Look at the impact of railway building in promoting the expansion of London into one of the world’s great cities, opening up south London in the 19th century, the development of Metroland in the 1920s and 1930s and the regeneration of the docklands in the 1990s.

The impact can also be seen from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. When we were bidding for the 2012 Olympic Games, the IOC was very sceptical about the proposed transport links. The turning point was when the panjandrums of the IOC were driven through CTRL tunnels in a fleet of Range Rovers, reaching the site from central London in under 10 minutes. The rest is history: we won the bid and you can see the legacy in the development of the Stratford area today.

It is claimed that around £2,000 per head has been spent in London on transport infrastructure in the past 25 years, contributing to its success as a major world city; but less than £200 has been spent outside London, and it shows. Despite my favourable view of the project as a whole, it is clear to me and many others that the London approach from Old Oak Common into Euston has not been satisfactorily resolved.

First, there is the impact of the very lengthy construction period in the Camden area, where the current proposals are, quite frankly, horrific. A huge canyon is to plough through this area; millions of tonnes of soil need to be removed but they have not worked out how to do it; thousands of homes, businesses and some schools will be affected by dust, noise, heavy traffic and vibration. No reasonable person could regard that as acceptable. As is evident from the petitions from Camden residents and from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, no satisfactory plan of mitigation has yet been devised. Nor, in my view, will it ever be with the current design.

Secondly, there is the issue of Euston itself. The Bill simply refers to “Euston” in its Long Title, but does that mean the neighbourhood of Euston or the new station? In fact, as has been pointed out, there are two Euston stations—the old one owned by Network Rail, which badly needs to be refurbished, and the new one, roughly half its size again, to be built by HS2 alongside to the west. There is also the alignment with the new Crossrail 2 station. At present it seems that HS2 would be to the west of the old station and the Crossrail station would be to the east, about half a mile apart, thereby cancelling out most of the savings in journey time that you have made in getting there.

The debate in the other place has highlighted the fact that these elements are not being handled as a single, integrated project, as was done at King’s Cross St Pancras. The land take and the sacrifice of existing buildings in the current plan would be immense and a huge area of central London would be blighted for two decades and more. There is an elementary error in the planning to treat this only as a railway station project. A comprehensive urban plan is needed for what the neighbourhood of Euston will look like when the station is built.

Despite the shortcomings of the existing plan, the motto of the promoters seems to be TINA—there is no alternative. However, there are alternatives, in particular: better use of existing tracks and the redevelopment of Euston station without the need to extend its current footprint to the west, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in his Euston express proposal; and a double deck rather than a side-by-side alignment of the platforms at Euston. People have also spoken of the HSUK proposal, which is a more comprehensive alternative which uses the M1 corridor and avoids the Chilterns AONB altogether but may at its southern end give us some insight into how better to do it.

We have been through all this before. For many years, the plan for CTRL, now HS1, was for it to reach the M25 and then plough its way through the densely populated suburbs of south-east London. Arups, the consulting engineers, proposed a different scheme. Instead of damaging already well-developed areas where there would be huge opposition, the line should be diverted north of the Thames and run through areas such as Stratford, where development would be welcomed. Fortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, had the foresight to see the sense of this and to overrule British Rail’s engineers.

Last night I attended an event to launch a new book by Professor Simon Taylor of the Judge Business School at Cambridge University called The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power in Britain. Leaving aside the obvious comment that he was a bit premature in agreeing with his publisher what the title should be, it is a very interesting read and I commend it to the House. At one point he discusses the reasons why big infrastructure projects go wrong, drawing on the work of the Danish Professor Bent Flyvbjerg. The latter identified a number of characteristics which make big projects go wrong. Many of these are applicable not only to nuclear power stations but also to HS2, and they include the long-time horizons, the many players involved, and changing views and objectives over time. We have also had this constant battle as to whether its capacity or time.

Significantly, Flyvbjerg identified a particular failing. There is often a:

“Lock-in or capture of a certain”— project—

“concept at an early stage, leaving analysis of alternatives weak or absent”.

That, I contend, is exactly what happened at CTRL until the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, and that is exactly what is happening here. Railway engineers can be a stubborn lot who are reluctant to concede that their first ideas might not be the best and reluctant to concede that someone else may have a better idea.

It may be argued that it is too late to start looking at different schemes for Euston. That simply cannot be true. The full scheme with the arrival of trains from the north of Birmingham will not be completed until around 2033. Crossrail 2, which Euston will certainly need to disperse all the arrivals, will not be completed until around 2027. In the mean time, Old Oak Common will shortly be connected to Crossrail 1—or whatever they are going to call it—and could be used as a temporary terminus much as Waterloo was for CTRL. I strongly agree with the insight of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that we should start at the southern end, because this is where the problems are, and sort them out before we start moving north.

The final requirement is greater transparency. Critics, including some in this House, have been consistently fobbed off with anodyne replies. Requests for sight of research on alternatives have been resisted, perhaps because the promoters would be embarrassed to reveal just how little has been done.

In conclusion, my advice to this House, and in particular to those lucky or unlucky enough to be appointed to the committee is this: do not be bullied or patronised by the promoters, and certainly do not patronise the petitioners. Do not be fobbed off and do not accept TINA; stand your ground and insist that no decisions are taken on the London approaches and no deemed planning consents are given until a full technical, economic and social analysis has been done comparing HS2’s current proposal with the alternative options. In particular, there should be an examination of an integrated approach bringing the existing station and the new platforms into a single project, and an examination of what the new Euston neighbourhood would look like. Finally, a scheme of mitigation must be produced which the people of Camden can live with for many years, possibly a decade or more.