Transport Infrastructure - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:22 pm, 11th February 2020

No, it is an impossible bar. Perhaps the noble Baroness would consider writing for the Spectator.

I welcome the Statement—not for what it says, which I will go through with some care—but for what it does not say, because the essence of this Statement is that it does not say “HS2 is cancelled”. That is, frankly, the only substantial point it makes. I want to make it very clear—to avoid all doubt—that Labour supports HS2, Labour supports northern rail and Labour supports the whole concept of a fully integrated, nationally owned railway system owned by the public and operated for the whole nation.

I will try to point out where the hard commitments are in this Statement—so it will not be a very long speech. I was involved in the improvements at London Transport and subsequently TfL, from the King’s Cross tragedy in 1987 until today. I am very proud of my involvement in that and of the people who worked with me. I did not expect to be praised by the Prime Minister in a Statement about northern rail, but I thank him very much. As one who has spent most waking moments over the past 12 years trying to screw more money out of the Government, I am very pleased that the Prime Minister has not forgotten his London roots and ends up saying not only how wonderful the mass transit system is but that there is more to do in London. Can I take that as a commitment for more money and, if so, how much and when? I find no other possible interpretation given the general speech.

The next commitment is, like most of the commitments in the Statement, pretty fluffy. The Prime Minister goes on to say that we are

“being held back by our inadequate infrastructure and so in the next few weeks this government will be setting out more details of a transport revolution”

When is the “next few weeks”? I thought about that phrase. A few weeks is sooner than a few months and more than a few days. Could we settle, say, on the end of March? Can the Minister give us a commitment on when this will happen? We know in this House that Ministers sometimes slip from commitments unless they are very clear, so I hope that she will be able to give us a date.

The first spending commitment is the record-breaking £5 billion of new investment in buses and bicycles. Can the Minister indicate a timeframe for that? It could be anything from a year to 50 years; it has to be set against the fact that, since 2010, the Government have inflicted cuts of £645 million a year in real terms on bus services, with 3,300 routes cut or withdrawn and fares soaring by two and a half times average wages. Just how immediate a commitment is this? Is it over 10 years? Is it over five years? Is it over an even shorter time?

I then ploughed on to see whether there was anything of substance and found nothing more until I got to page 5 of the printed version of the Statement, at which point the Prime Minister said that

“that £5 billion is just the start”.

I love these phrases: “just the start” means there is more. Does the Minister agree that that means that there is more than £5 billion? Will this be set out in the Budget?

The Statement then goes into a whole series of road improvements—you will notice that there is no commitment to any particular project; there is no money; there is no deadline. On the next page, it talks about

“new investments in the rail network across the North” and then repeats three schemes which have already been announced, once again with no deadlines and no budget. The paragraph concludes with one of the singular commitments in the Statement:

“I can today announce that we will be upgrading the Bristol East junction”.

What a delight that that is picked out to be in the midst of this splendid speech.

I could not find anything of substance on pages 7 or 8, but then I got to page 9. There, the Prime Minister slags off the management of HS2:

“Speaking as an MP whose constituency is on the route I cannot say that the company has distinguished itself in its handling of local communities. The cost forecasts have exploded. But the poor management to date has not detracted from the fundamental value of the project.”

What is he going to do about the management? At no point in the speech that I read does he make any recommendations about that.

Page 10, once again, contains absolutely nothing in terms of commitments. When we get to page 11, we are beginning to creep up to a commitment. It starts in the middle of the page:

“The Infrastructure and Projects Authority considers that this first phase can be delivered for its current projected cost of £35 billion to £45 billion in today’s prices … if we start now, services could be running by the end of the decade.”

Then, on the next page, he says:

“So I am giving high speed rail the green signal.”

That might reasonably be interpreted as a commitment to deliver the first phase, for between £35 billion and £45 billion, by 2030. Will the Minister please confirm that that is a hard commitment?

Further on, on page 12, we now know what the decisive action is going to be to bring this project to boot: we are going to appoint a Minister. Let us hope that he or she is a near relative of the Almighty. There will be a

“Ministerial oversight group … tasked with taking strategic decisions”.

At least we will know who to blame if it all goes wrong.

The Statement goes on to say:

“There will be changes in the way HS2 Ltd is managed”,

and from page 13 we know what these are: the company will be divided in two—at least that is what I think it says. It says,

“so that the company can focus solely on getting phases 1 and 2A built on something approaching on time and on budget, I will be creating new delivery arrangements for both the grossly behind-schedule Euston terminus, and phase 2B of the wider project.”

Am I right in assuming that HS2 Ltd will be divided in two?

Now we come on to the really important question: are these hints and words an equal commitment for the whole project? Is this Statement a commitment for the whole project—phase 1, phase 2 and the northern rail? There is a little hint at the end of page 13 where the Prime Minister says,

Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester, which I committed to supporting during my first days in office.”

Once again I ask: is this Statement a commitment to all of HS2 and the northern rail project?

The Statement often says very little, except that,

“we will … explore options for creating a new delivery vehicle for Northern Powerhouse Rail. And we will start treating HS2”—

At that point, I think that the Statement changed things slightly from what has been said previously. I think it suggested that the two halves of HS2, north and south, phase a and phase b, have been divided into two but will now be in one company called High Speed North. I hope that the Minister is capable of working out how that is going to streamline the project and deliver it.

The next two pages are blank of comment. Then the Statement ends with:

“This government will deliver a new anatomy of British transport”.

But what do they actually commit to? Five billion pounds for buses and bicycles, with no programme or timetable; a commitment to build phases 1 and 2a at between £35 billion and £45 billion by 2030; at best an implied promise to do phase 2 and northern rail, with no figures, no timescale and no detail; and upgrading Bristol East junction. This is the most vacuous Statement I have ever heard repeated in this House. To thrive, the north needs a hard, measurable commitment; this Statement does not meet that test.