I congratulate Greg Mulholland on securing this timely and important debate. I will not go through the economic reasons or justifications for investment in a second high-speed rail line, because they have already been well made, but what I will say is that HS2 must provide evidence of a strategic approach to the development of the second high-speed network-a network is exactly what we need. We want a plan for a long-term investment in high-speed rail in this country. It must be one that brings together all the major conurbations. The High Speed Rail UK campaign is an alliance of all the major cities. Some 55 per cent. of the nation's wealth is generated by such conurbations and a third of the population lives within them, including London. Despite the differences between France and the UK, our population is on a par with that of France. Although we may be smaller, our population, wealth generation and our importance as an international economy mean that we can draw parallels with France. An investment in a high-speed network that links all the major conurbations, including those in Scotland, in the west and the east of the UK, and in the south-west, is critical to the economic future of this country. I do not want to lay down any kind of imperative as to where the first phase of high-speed rail should go or to say that there should just be the one line, because we have to be realistic. We must be strategic, and have a network laid down by HS2 and agreed by Lord Adonis that will link all the conurbations.
Given the importance of the coming period and the possible contractions in public spending in that period, it is quite unhealthy for the conurbations and for MPs representing constituencies from the east and west of the country to be arguing, in a sense, about where the high-speed rail line should go. If there is a squeeze on public spending, we may well find that it is really important that MPs from Yorkshire work with MPs from Manchester and other parts of the north-west to ensure that we keep our fair share of the spending cake from the Department for Transport in the coming years.
As several colleagues have already said today, it is also really important that we ensure that investment in the conventional rail network is maintained and, if at all possible, increased. There is a real interest in the north in ensuring that the Manchester hub, which is an example of that investment in the conventional rail network, goes ahead. So it is vital that all of us, especially those of us from the provincial cities, stick together in making the case both for high-speed rail and for investment in the conventional rail network.
It is crucial to recognise the economic importance of high-speed rail to shorten journey times not only between northern and Scottish cities and London but between the east and the west of the country. For instance, the economic relationships between Sheffield and Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol and Sheffield and Birmingham are as important as those between Sheffield and London, and they are potentially even more important given the investment that we will receive in Sheffield for generating nuclear research and nuclear capacity. It is not just the link with London that matters; that is a really important point.
I would always support a rail line that takes in Sheffield in the first phase of a strategic network; of course I would support that. For me, it is absolutely critical that Sheffield is linked on such a network. However, whatever decision is made about the first phase, it is really important that markers are laid down at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate a serious intention to develop the rest of the network.
For example, if a decision was taken to build a line that went to Birmingham and then across the country, via Rugby, to Sheffield and Leeds and then further north, it would be absolutely vital to undertake planning work to lay down the parameters and the groundwork to ensure that a line also went through the west of the country to Manchester and to areas further north. So, although it would not be realistic to develop two major rail lines at the same time as part of a first phase, the first phase must be paralleled with the investment to lay down the groundwork for further phases of high-speed rail.
Another example of that type of planning would involve the Woodhead route across the Pennines, which is the obvious choice for a transpennine link. If that route is not part of the first phase of the high-speed network, we must ensure that it is at least safeguarded for the future and for further phases of development. So I would like to hear more from the Minister about the potential for safeguarding routes that are currently not being used and about the importance of ensuring that early work is undertaken on further phases of high-speed rail.
I will conclude my remarks, because I know that other people want to contribute to this debate, by saying that we must be ambitious on high-speed rail. To be honest, we cannot afford to turn our backs on the opportunity that is now before us for the future of high-speed rail in Britain. There are 3,500 miles of high-speed rail network across Europe and we have just 68 miles of that network. That is absolutely appalling and shows our dreadful record in investing long term in public transport links, including rail links. We cannot afford to say no to high-speed rail and we cannot afford to get our approach to it wrong. Our approach must be strategic and ambitious and, as I said earlier, there must be a network that links all the major conurbations, giving each one the opportunity to develop economically, bringing the country closer together and, if you like, enabling the regions to develop an economic capacity that will allow them to compete with London. I say that for the sake of London as much as for the sake of the regions, because if London continues to grow at the expense of the rest of the country, in the end it will become unsustainable. That would not be good for UK plc.
So we have to invest in high-speed rail; we have to stick together in the regions on this issue, and we have to ensure that we get the decision on high-speed rail right.