High Speed Rail (London–West Midlands) Bill - Third Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 31st January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 3:08 pm, 31st January 2017

My Lords, I am well aware of the gravity of the amendment I have tabled. I hope the House will understand that I have only decided to do this after long and careful consideration. I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for six years, but I was a Member of the House of Commons for 27 years and a Deputy Speaker for 13 of those, so I am well aware of the proceedings and conventions surrounding the passage of a Bill. What we are doing today is a rare occurrence, but not without precedence and quite in order. Sometimes desperate situations require desperate remedies. In this case, your Lordships are all that stand between the wishes and welfare of the people and a folly on the greatest scale imaginable.

I have followed this issue carefully since it arrived in this House. I spoke against it at Second Reading, during the Queen’s Speech debate and in Committee. During all those stages I heard nothing but criticism of the project from every corner of the House, but noble Lords were still, for some reason, reluctant to speak against it in principle. So we arrive at the situation we face today—all the scheme’s credibility has long since gone, yet it is still bowling along with a momentum all of its own. It has been compared to Alice in Wonderland or the emperor’s new clothes. One journalist described it as the “zombie railway” that refuses to die. How has it got so far? The originators of the scheme, all those years ago, were bewitched by the idea of speed. They had looked at high-speed railways in France and Japan and thought we should do the same here, with speeds up to 250 miles per hour. This was the original motivation for the whole scheme and when the claims for speed were eventually discredited, the promoters started talking about capacity. Now that the figures on where capacity is needed most have been queried, confirming a report by Sir Rod Eddington, the former head of British Airways, there is little or nothing to be said for the scheme at all. In his report, Sir Rod also challenged the cult of speed for its own sake, pointing out that above 150 miles an hour energy use soars and rates of return plummet.

The use of Euston station has produced enormous, as yet unanswered questions. How will all the new platforms needed be fitted in without reducing present capacity and affecting existing Euston operators? How are passengers going to link up with the rest of the transport system, given that links, especially with the underground, are very poor? Passengers from the north wanting to use Eurostar may have to carry their bags for a mile down the busy Euston road. Even at this stage these vital matters are still not resolved.

I do not intend at this stage to go further into all the other countless failings of the scheme. The huge and insurmountable problems raised in Committee with major aspects of construction still have not been resolved; nor has the issue been addressed of how the money could be much better spent on linking Liverpool to Hull, or on modernising and improving the whole railway system.

Our right reverend Prelates have pointed out that untold damage has been done to homes and heartbreak caused to families along the proposed route; the same is true of offices, businesses and long-established, settled communities in both London and the countryside. People have had to move out of their homes and fight for compensation, sometimes in the most harrowing circumstances.

It is not commonly understood that most people will not be able to use their local station anymore because it will not be linked to the new line. They will either have to drive all the way to one of the very small number of new stations or suffer an inferior service.

It might be possible to justify all this upheaval if the project was essential—vital to the national interest. However, this is without question not the case. It has been dubbed a vanity project and the truth is that it has always been entirely optional. Originally a bright idea, it simply took off, took hold, and has never been seriously channelled. If it proves to be the failure predicted by so many well-informed people, what a terrible disaster that will be.

The total cost of the scheme is currently £56 billion but according to current estimates it is more likely to be in the region of £80 billion. I remind your Lordships that the National Health Service is having difficulties balancing its books to the tune of £1.8 billion, yet we are talking about £80 billion for this project. How can a Bill be given the go-ahead when there are so many outstanding problems—not minor ones but major ones?

If people try to argue that this project cannot be stopped because so much has happened already and so much time and money has been committed, our answer must surely be, “How has this happened? Why have people done this before it has passed its obligatory parliamentary stages?”. What is the point of our looking at and discussing these matters if our thoughts, views and decisions are to be totally disregarded? Nothing could better illustrate the gap between Parliament and people, Government and the governed, than a scheme such as this.

I have it on good authority that the Prime Minister, when she assumed office, wanted to abandon the scheme but was told that she could not because it was too late. It is never too late. There is an old adage about throwing good money after bad and although it may well be necessary to write off considerable moneys already spent, these sums have to be compared with the billions of pounds that would be spent in the future, not to mention the 10 years it is going to take to build, the massive disruption to Euston station and the surrounding area in London and, of course, the devastating effect it will have on our countryside.

The Institute of Directors, after a comprehensive survey of its members, has decided that HS2 is “not worth the money” and a “grand folly” and it calls on the Government to abandon it. The Institute of Economic Affairs has predicted a cost of £80 billion and said the line “defies economic logic”. The Engineering Employers’ Federation wants the money switched to roads. The former chairman of Eurostar, Adam Mills, said in a letter to the Times that HS2’s economics were “away with the fairies”. He said the money should be spent on,

“traditional rail enhancements, given the … short distances between UK cities”.

I have here four pages, filled with quotations from business leaders, academics, railway specialists, economists, ex-Cabinet Ministers and journalists—I cannot possibly read them all out. Every single person condemns HS2 and will, I imagine, be watching today’s proceedings with great interest. Most significantly for us, our own House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee, in its report on HS2, was hugely critical. On capacity it said:

“There are less expensive options to remedy these problems than HS2 but these have not been … reviewed”.

In summary, the committee’s chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, said that at £50 billion, which was the then estimate,

“HS2 will be one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the UK but the Government have not yet made a convincing case for why it is necessary”.

In conclusion, the committee said:

“We have set out a number of important questions on HS2 that the Government must now provide detailed answers to. Parliament should not approve the enabling legislation that will allow HS2 work to begin until we have satisfactory answers to these key questions”.

There have been no satisfactory answers, because there cannot be—they do not exist for this scheme, and anyone who has studied it knows this to be true.

This House has a simple choice before it this afternoon. If it believes that the HS2 project provides good value for money and will benefit the British public, it will vote against the amendment. But if it agrees that this was an ill-conceived project from the start, which has been entirely discredited, even during the three years it has been passing through Parliament, and that if allowed to proceed, it will result in massive expenditure and huge disruption in both London and the countryside for no discernible benefit at all, the House will support the amendment and stop this scheme before any more harm is done. I beg to move.