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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:03 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, I thank the Minister and all noble Lords who participated in this debate for an interesting afternoon. I will resist the temptation to cover all the contributions because I recognise that it is getting late and noble Lords want to listen to the Minister rather than to me.

However, noble Lords will forgive me a little anecdote in my welcoming of the noble Lord, Lord Mair. We had an intimate professional relationship although we have never met each other. Between 1988 and 2000, I was the managing director of London Underground, and then its chairman. During this period, I was responsible for the creation and delivery of the Jubilee line extension and was in receipt of the reports that the noble Lord and his team wrote on this building and its clock tower. I particularly recall one occasion when the report said that if we carried on creating the station in the way that we were planning, the clock tower might move some 300 millimetres away from the rest of the building. As I said to my project director, “Somebody would notice”. In fact, the reports from the noble Lord’s team managed to make me so neurotic that my first task every morning when I came into my office during the construction phase was to look out of the window and make sure the clock tower was still standing. However, I am very pleased to welcome the noble Lord and meet him in the flesh at last.

In many ways this is an historic moment because this will be the last occasion when the general principle of the line will be debated. Unless something goes wrong, when we give the Bill a Second Reading this afternoon—as I feel we should and must—that will be the key political moment that will create a railway. Having created a railway myself in a modest way, I know that you do something very special because railways, if they are well done, last for ever in human terms. This railway will be here in hundreds of years’ time unless there is some great discontinuity in society as we know it. If you go on the Terrace and look at the skyline, I guarantee that some of those buildings will go; they will not last for hundreds of years. However, the impact of this railway on society will be profound. In giving this Bill a Second Reading, we will play our role in that historic event.

The Labour Party—these Benches—unambiguously supports this project. I have studied the case. The transport case is okay. I have looked at the other benefits prayed in aid and see that the analysts have had exactly the same trouble as we had of predicting what we might loosely call the generative effects of the railway. They in fact put quite a modest proportion of the benefit down to it.

When we developed the extension case, we had only a relatively modest transport case. I have to tell noble Lords that as construction costs went up, the actual ratio between the benefits and the cost dipped close to one—in fact, it dipped slightly under it. Yet that modest 10 miles of extra railway have had a spectacular effect on this city and the benefits are overwhelmingly clear and great. I believe that this railway will have the same effect on the Midlands and the north. I do not believe the modest figure in the document in respect of the regenerative effect: I believe that it will be much greater and will add to the economic, social and cultural life of the Midlands and the north in a way far beyond what we can predict. We could not predict what happened in east London but we could dream about it. We cannot predict what will happen in the Midlands and the north but we can see it as a vision. I believe that that vision will become a reality. But the word here is “belief” when you go away from the sums and try to envisage the future. That is what the role of politics is all about. At the end of the day, this is not about giving a technical report a tick but rather looking at this project and having the courage to make a political decision that it is worth pressing ahead with it to give the opportunity for an outstanding and spectacular change to occur to the whole shape of the relationship between the south-east and the Midlands and the north.

It will get the political go-ahead today because it was in the manifestos of both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, and it is supported by the Liberal Democrats. It was of course originally a Labour project, introduced, as we know, by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, with debates in 2009 and a Command Paper in 2010, so it has had support. Today, roughly 20 of the speeches have been in favour of HS2, with some against and some don’t-knows, but 20 out of 27 have been in favour. Therefore, very properly the Bill will get political backing, and it got overwhelming support in the House of Commons.

However, if our vision of HS2 is valid, we must not lose sight of its prime purpose, which is to dramatically enable the development of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, and the regions around them and beyond. It is no good just stuffing a railway into those cities; what we do in those cities must complement the railway, and the stations and the railway infrastructure are just part of that. The transport system—not just the railway transport system but the bus transport system and how HS2 integrates with all those facilities—will have to be concentrated on, as well giving the regions the freedom and the economic regulation to allow the flowering of development. Over the lifetime of the project, we must take a holistic approach to how this railway is complemented by government and local government.

There are also one or two things that we have to get more right than we have done so far. In order to be a success both at this stage and in the construction stage, this project needs proactive and regular engagement from the sponsor. People keep talking about changes, and the sponsor must be involved. HS2 Ltd is the agent rather than the responsible body. There needs to be proactive and regular engagement with communities, stakeholders and special interest groups—environmental interest groups, industry groups and TU groups—right across the spectrum. I do not believe that you can overconsult in these situations. You can misconsult but you cannot overconsult. When we extended the Jubilee line, my experience was that the more you consulted the local communities, the more smoothly things went.

I have read some of the things that HS2 Ltd says it is going to do. I may be being unfair but it seemed to me that it is saying that it is going to employ many more PR people. However, our experience was that if you want to get people on side, you have to deliver the decision-makers. If you are building a station, you want the station project manager to talk to the local communities. People do not want to hear smooth words; they do not mind if the words are not very smooth if they believe that they are talking to the people who can make decisions and do the tweaks to make their lives better, taking their concerns on board. Therefore, I hope that the sponsors improve their game.

We must not lose sight of whose project this is. This is government’s project. The Government are responsible for it and, in the final analysis, they must recognise that they have to deliver it. In these circumstances, you can subcontract execution, which is effectively what has been done, but you cannot subcontract responsibility. Wherever anything is not going satisfactorily, it is the responsibility of the Government to intervene and improve things. The Government should remember that they are not only responsible for this project but own, are responsible for and control Network Rail, and control other parts of the infrastructure. When it comes to those parts of the infrastructure working together, the Government have to take on their responsibility and make sure that there are proper relationships between those public bodies and that we get good, integrated answers.

I ask the Minister one question: do the Government unambiguously accept their ultimate responsibility? Do they unambiguously accept that, although there are arm’s-length bodies, when they fail to work together properly or fail to have proper relationships with the community, it is the Government’s responsibility to step in to change things?

I listened to the debate, and a lot of issues have been raised, but the key one seems to be the environment. We must get this as right as possible. It is a difficult balance. I am not going to offer any views now as to where we will come down on that debate: we must, first, leave that to the Select Committee. I hope that we can bridge some of these gaps in understanding of the environment that we save in construction and delivery. We will have issues after the Bill comes back to the House, when it will effectively become a public Bill. We are concerned about embedding qualifications in the community; there are issues of ownership, where we may not entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. We need a way to ensure proper integration of Euston, and we probably need rather more reporting to government on the financial aspects, but those are relatively small details.

My final query is on the role of the Select Committee. We thank the Minister for his first statement—it was a real step forward in understanding—but we still have the key issue of what powers the Select Committee will have as compared with the powers of the Select Committee in the House of Commons. If the Minister is unable to give us clear answers on that today, I hope that he will get them to us as quickly as possible and share them with everyone who has spoken in today’s debate. The more clarity we have as to the role of the committee and its powers, the more efficiently it will work and the more that petitioners will understand what they can reasonably expect the committee to do, and not expect it to do things that it cannot do.

On these Benches, we support this project and believe that the Bill should be given a Second Reading today.