High-speed Rail

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:35 am on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 11:35 am, 8th December 2009

The hon. Gentleman's account of that Select Committee hearing rather fits with my recollection of a radio interview with the Secretary of State a couple of weeks ago.

I think that I represent a greater proportion of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty than any other Member of the House and already there is concern in my constituency about reports in the newspapers and the broadcast media that HS2 will propose routes that would plough straight through the heart of the Chilterns AONB. If such routes are indeed proposed, it seems to me that the exercise that I and other Members who represent constituencies in the Chilterns must undertake would be to balance the national interest with the interest of our constituencies. The Government could reasonably ask our constituents to consider that issue too.

Any proposal involving the Chilterns would have to pass two critical tests. One is a financial test involving value for money. Is the very large expenditure of public money entailed by a high-speed rail proposal justified by the economic benefits that would accrue to the nation? Also, would we be able to recoup at least a large part of that investment from various carbon access charges in subsequent years? Part of that analysis must include whether the fares it would be necessary to charge to make a sufficient return on the capital outlay would be affordable for ordinary people in this country. One reason why the abortive Central Railway freight project fell is that it became apparent that the necessary capital expenditure could be financed only on the expectation of freight access charges too high to attract any significant amount of traffic away from the motorways on to the proposed railway line.

The value for money test is particularly important given the point made by Sir Peter Soulsby. It is inevitable that expenditure of that order-current estimates of the total are between £30 billion and £40 billion-will involve diverting money that might be spent on upgrading other parts of the network, which sorely needs upgrading and modernising at many bottlenecks and pinch points that we could all identify.

Secondly, there is the environmental test. For my constituents, that is of particular importance. My constituency includes an area that is part of both the green belt and the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. By definition, therefore, it is an area designated by successive Governments as having landscape of national value. There is quite a lot of National Trust land along the valleys of the Chilterns. The Chilterns Conservation Board, the statutory agency charged with protecting the AONB, along with the National Trust, the Chiltern Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is already concerned about the proposals emanating from HS2.

When the report is published, I will want to see evidence of how the environmental balance would be struck. A project of that scale, like any big construction project, will inevitably involve the emission of a great deal of carbon. How will that be placed in the balance? What assumptions will be made about how much carbon will be saved by diverting passengers away from domestic flights and road travel on to the proposed new high-speed rail network?