High Speed 2 — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:07 am on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham 10:07 am, 12th September 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I welcome yet another Minister for HS2 to the Front Bench. The turnover in Secretaries of State and junior Ministers responsible for this project at the Department for Transport has been regular, to say the least. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Sir William Cash because he made many of the points that I wanted to make. I will try not to repeat some of them, although some inevitably bear repeating.

Back in 2009, when Andrew Adonis and the Labour party announced the project, I told him that not only was it going to damage my constituency, but that it was an unpopular and costly proposition, and would perhaps not benefit the country as a whole—it will certainly be paid for by the many and be used only by the few. Unfortunately, the incoming Government, of which I was a part—I tried hard to persuade my colleagues in Cabinet to drop the project—went for it. Today, we find ourselves in a situation in which not a single inch of track has been laid, but billions of pounds have already been spent.

To follow up on the point made by Graham Stringer—we first came into contact when I fought the Manchester Central European seat many moons ago—I am very lucky to have persuaded my colleagues to invest in tunnelling. That was not only for my constituents, but for the country as a whole, because this dreadful project is going through an environmentally sensitive area—an area of outstanding natural beauty. There is merit in looking at making the area a national park, although that may not be successful. Such a rare piece of our land, with fragile chalk streams, really deserves that protection. It is a shame that such protection does not cover the whole of the AONB but stops prematurely at the end of my constituency.

For me, this project has been one of poor management, poor corporate governance and failures in communication right along the way. Let me refer to a couple of constituency cases; in fact, I have a letter that I will hand to the Minister at the end, addressed to the Secretary of State, about yet another failure regarding a constituent. The issue is communication; as far as I am concerned, HS2 has not learned any lessons about communication with communities.

My constituent is troubled by the closure of Shire Lane, the partial closure of Roberts Lane and the completion date for the construction of the link road. Since last November, she has been given a range of dates, ranging from January this year to April and May, and now to September or even July next year. She has continually chased answers, only to be ignored or told that someone will get back to her.

My constituent’s complaints about HS2’s engagement can be summarised in terms of sporadic communication; broken promises; incorrect information; having to chase constantly, making her feel that she is a nuisance to officials; and the trivialising of her concerns. At the same, a very glossy engagement strategy brochure, which is a spin on public relations, has been delivered to her house. Goodness knows how much that cost to produce. It seems that HS2 is continually secretive. People must not be messed about like that.

My constituent received the first letter on 20 June, which stated that HS2 required land access. It said:

“we will need to enter your land to carry out surveys or investigations during the period from 23 July 2018 to 30 September 2018.”

The second letter, dated 22 August, was exactly the same, but changed the dates to 1 October to 31 December.

On the date of completion of the link road, the communications audit trail shows that HS2 took more than a month from the last known completion date for the link road to tell residents that it had been delayed another six months. That is not good enough. I will hand the letter to the Minister to pass to the Secretary of State. I am sure the Minister will look into this matter.

I had another case earlier this year that bears repetition. It was on compensation, which everyone seems to think is so highly paid to constituents who are thrown out of their homes. I raised this issue with the Secretary of State, and he had to fix it. After HS2 had agreed the compensation, my constituent wrote:

“Despite us having a clear and agreed contract for a year, signed in January 2017, having provided all the necessary documentation from our end, and HS2 Ltd being obligated by the contract to pay the sums to us within 21 days, three months later HS2 Ltd have still not fulfilled their side of it and made the additional payment to us.”

That transaction threatened a disabled couple’s move into their newly adapted home.

I think the Minister is familiar with the case, but it bears repetition because of the contrast with the lucrative high salaries paid to officials, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone alluded to. HS2 paid at least £100,000 in salary and perks last year to 318 officials—up from 155 in 2015-16. It spent more than £600 million on consultants—well over double the figure the previous year. This is a taxpayer-owned project, but more than 25% of staff enjoy a six-figure remuneration package, including salary, bonus and company pension contributions. Four years ago, that proportion stood at 4%, and two years ago it was less than 17%. If we add that up—particularly the extremely expensive and often very aggressive and intimidating barristers who have been used in the hybrid Bill process—the costs really outweigh what is reasonably to be expected of a taxpayer-funded project.

I will not mention Carillion or the fact that the Department has not updated the costs of the project. There are so many areas in which this project falls down. For example, for years we pushed for a property bond scheme, but in May 2018, the Department set up a High Speed 2 property price support consultation, and it will publish its decision on the consultation exercise later this year. When will that consultation be published, and what are the chances of getting the property bond that has been promoted by many people?

The whole project is starting to slip and is out of control. The phase 2b Bill has been put back and will be tabled again in 2020. The Government say that will not have a bearing on the final completion date