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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:42 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 3:42 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mair, on a maiden speech of great distinction and quality. I am sure that he is going to add a lot to this House. I also congratulate the noble Lords on both Front Benches on their robust opening speeches. I am a strong supporter of this project, although not without reservations, and I thought that they both put their case very well.

I suppose I ought to declare a personal interest as a very regular user of the west coast main line, travelling up and down to Carlisle virtually every weekend. I am grateful for the modernisation of the line which took place about a decade ago because the journey now takes three hours and 20 minutes. When I first made the journey as a little boy about 63 years ago, I think that it took six hours and 40 minutes—so we have seen progress. But in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up in Carlisle, progress was thought to be the motorway. Well, the last time I tried to drive up to my home in Cumbria during the day, it took me 10 hours. In the old slogan of the 1980s, we do truly live in the age of the train—and therefore this project seems to be the right one.

I will concentrate my remarks on how the project relates to something else that I am concerned about, which is the rebalancing of the British economy and the northern powerhouse agenda. Connectivity in this rebalancing exercise is extremely important. We have a generation of new entrepreneurs in Cumbria, but often their clients and businesses are located outside the county. They need rapid connections if they are going to base their activities up north. I am the Pro Chancellor of Lancaster University, and a lot of our research depends on partnerships with other institutions and interaction with people in universities elsewhere—so, again, connectivity is of great importance. Of course, if we are to benefit from tourism to the Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall, again connectivity is of great importance. Speed does matter, and that is why we need to continue to improve the quality of the railways.

What I am rather put off by is the idea that a cheaper and better way to improve the quality would be more of the kind of piecemeal improvements to the west coast main line that we had to go through a decade or so ago. I used to enjoy some lovely trips on the Carlisle to Settle railway when we were diverted from the main line, but I have some rather less happy memories of windy Sunday afternoons on Newcastle Central station waiting to use the east coast main line. I have no great enthusiasm for this concept of piecemeal improvements. It seems to me that HS2 is on the right track in that respect. Transport can make a vital contribution to the rebalancing of the economy.

One thing that worries me about this project is whether it will actually happen or whether the Treasury will take fright half way through. It is a concern that this is the London to West Midlands Bill, not the London to Manchester and Leeds Bill. In terms of rebalancing the economy, there is no doubt that the high-speed line will contribute greatly to integrating Birmingham and the West Midlands into the booming London and south-east economy. But if that was all that happened, it would have a very adverse effect on the north. In fact, it would be a case where half a loaf was worse than nothing. We must fight very hard to prevent that.

There is also a big question as to whether HS2 will be accompanied by the investments we need to improve the transport system in the north, particularly in east-west communications. Of course, the obvious east-west communication is HS3 and that can easily be linked into HS2, as other Members have pointed out. Further north, in my part of the world, the Carlisle to Newcastle railway was built in the 1830s—and when you go on it, it still feels like it. The Cumbrian Coast Line is a disgrace when it should be a tremendous attraction and a way of linking west Cumbria and Sellafield to Carlisle, with regular fast connections to London. It should be a tourist route with the highest potential.

So there is a lot of work for the new Rail North to do, and a lot of investment is needed if the full benefits of HS2 are to be realised. I suspect that the problem is that we need to change our strategy as a country. We need to develop a national strategy in favour of much larger public investment than we have seen in the past two decades. If we are limited to the total level of public investment that we have now, it is very unlikely that the money we need to create a real northern powerhouse will be forthcoming; Crossrail 2 is likely to take higher priority. We must get the public finances right and our expenditure and income into balance so that we can spend the money on investment, which is truly important.

My third and final point is a very parochial one. It concerns what is now being said about how the benefits of this scheme will cross the north. I was rather appalled, when I looked at the forecasting of the economic benefits of HS2, to see from the service model of what would flow from the thing when it is fully introduced, that there would be one HS2 fast train to Glasgow an hour that would stop at Preston and then would not stop again until it got to Glasgow. That seemed to me to be pretty appalling for the far north-west of England. I know that this is only a kind of planning assumption; it is not a timetable. But it is very important, rather as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said, that we have to find a way of connecting Liverpool into the HS2 plan. It would be absurd for the fastest trains not to make a stop in the far north-west at Carlisle. In the 19th century, it was such a railway junction and such a transport centre for the Scottish border northern region that seven railway companies operated out of the station.

These are my concerns. Will it ever go beyond the West Midlands? Will investment be available for the improvement of the rest of the transport in the north, and will the benefits be spread across the whole of the north? I think that they should be. Hesitation on these matters has been a national disease, as the noble Lord, Lord Mair, said. We have to be decisive here and I fully support the Bill.