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8 Dec 2009 : Column 31WH—continued

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (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
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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
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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.

11.35 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this debate. High-speed rail is one of those things that almost everybody, whichever part of the country they represent, can happily sign up to as an attractive and valuable idea in principle. The trouble is that, unless and until we reach the stage where we are starting to debate particular route options and the problems and challenges that arise from each of them, we will not start to come to terms with both the benefits and the costs that are involved and we will not be able to assess the benefits and costs of a project of this ambitious scale.

We do not have a route yet. We have all sorts of speculation or informed leaks appearing in the media about what High Speed 2 will produce. We have a model of high-speed rail development that is rather different from Network Rail and we also have the other two proposals to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he will clarify one point, which is the timing of any announcement by the Department for Transport. My clear understanding is that HS2 is under an obligation to present its report to the Secretary of State for Transport by the end of the year. In an earlier intervention, the Minister talked about an announcement at the end of the year. My constituents and I want to know whether the Government are looking to make a public announcement at the turn of the year, as the Minister indicated in his intervention, or whether Ministers will study the report for a bit before they make a public announcement.

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Chris Mole: I am happy to advise the hon. Gentleman that it is the Government's intention to consider the report. It will be a significant report requiring appropriate consideration. Furthermore, we will obviously want to ensure that it is aligned with any other publications on our national transport corridors.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful for that somewhat elliptical response from the Minister; it did not seem to clarify the Government's timetable very much at all.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): In the Select Committee on Transport, I recently asked the Secretary of State for Transport about the HS2 report; I asked him if I could get a copy of it under the Christmas tree. His answer was that he would have a copy under the Christmas tree, but it would be a number of months before I could receive a copy, because there could well be planning blight involved.

Mr. Lidington: 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 the hon. Member for Leicester, South (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
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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?

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is making all the points that I would seek to make if I had time to speak. Does he agree that the project affects not only the Chilterns but, on one showing, the edge of London through the Colne valley regional park? One of the proposed schemes envisages building a Heathrow airport terminal, culverting the Colne along a section of its length and driving the railway line through the heart of the park, which has long been regarded as a key lung of considerable biodiversity on the edge of London. Those things will also have to be factored in-I will be interested to hear the Minister's response-if that is indeed going to be the preferred route.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a telling point in respect of his constituency. Those of us who represent seats in Buckinghamshire are all too well aware that the Government are insisting on the construction of tens of thousands of additional new homes in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. One argument-which, in fairness, the Government put forward themselves-is that areas such as the Colne valley regional park and the Chilterns AONB are critical to the Government's vision of sustainable communities where urban development provides residents with access to neighbouring areas of open space in which to enjoy recreational and sporting opportunities. The loss of that rural amenity must be placed in the balance, as must the risk of permanent and irreparable damage to landscape that Governments over the years have defined as being of national significance.

My questions to the Minister are these. First, what arrangements will be made for environmental impact assessments? Do the Government envisage a single assessment for the entire project, dealing with both strategic and local impacts, or will more than one such assessment be done? At what stage in any Government proposal would such an environmental impact assessment be presented? For example, would a full EIA be available to Parliament and the public before the proposal was voted on in the House of Commons?

Secondly, what consultation do the Government plan to hold with people whose personal lives, amenities and local communities could be seriously adversely affected by the construction of a high-speed rail link and who,
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because the rail link will exist to serve cities and will have as few intermediate stations as possible, are unlikely to benefit very much from its operation?

Thirdly, how will the Government take account of the fact that there is an inevitable relationship between the cost of the project and the provision of measures to mitigate the damaging environmental impact of a new railway line? Cuttings, tunnels and embankments to protect people from noise pollution all cost money. All too often, as I know from having the M40 in my constituency, Governments over the years have cut corners when it comes to protecting people, particularly in rural communities, from the adverse impact of large-scale infrastructure improvements. It would not be acceptable, for example, for all the money for environmental protection to go into tunnelling under London and then for the Chilterns or other rural areas affected to be told that there is no money left to look after their interests. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurances on those points.

Christopher Fraser (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there are still six people left to speak in 12 minutes.

11.48 am

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I will be brief, Mr. Fraser. I support the concept of high-speed rail. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate. We have worked closely on the possibility of high-speed rail links into south and west Yorkshire. I agree that it is important in the meantime to consider other measures such as electrification, track improvements to the midland main line and other improvements for which I have been campaigning, with other colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

The benefits of high-speed rail are clear. Getting people out of planes and their cars is good for the environment, and the possibility of rebalancing economic growth in this country back to the north is important. It is also important that we have a vision for the long term, not just of a short single line, but of a network for the whole country, and that we plan over 10, 20 or 30 years. We need only look at France and Spain: only six years ago, the train journey from Madrid to Barcelona took me six hours; it now takes two. Soon Spain will have more high-speed track than any other country in Europe. If Spain can do it with that sort of planning, we ought to be able to do it as well.

I certainly oppose proposals involving just one line to Birmingham, or the ridiculous idea of a line going from Birmingham to Manchester and then cutting across the Pennines to Leeds as an afterthought-I cannot possibly be associated with any scheme that treats Leeds simply as an afterthought. Occasionally in the past, Sheffield and Leeds have competed over things; on this occasion, the two cities are united, as are the parties. Any strategic approach to high-speed rail in this country must serve the major cities of the east midlands-Leicester, Nottingham and Derby-and go on into west Yorkshire and serve Sheffield, Leeds and other places. If high-speed rail is to be effective, it must target those major areas of population.

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As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, two proposals, each with advantages and disadvantages, would do that. The first is to go straight up the middle of the country. That is a logical way to serve the east midlands and south and west Yorkshire. There would be spurs off to Birmingham and Manchester and the line would go on to Newcastle and Scotland. In terms of population covered against track used and pounds spent, that is probably the most cost-effective option, although I understand that it could divide some of the supporters of high-speed rail who want the alternative proposal to be taken up.

The alternative is the Y option-a line that would go from Birmingham to Manchester, with a spur coming off somewhere near Rugby that went on to the east midlands, south and west Yorkshire and the north-east. If the Y option were taken, it would make economic sense for only one line to go to Scotland, and that would be the north-eastern branch to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I am not sure that there is economic sense in taking two lines to Scotland, but we can have that debate.

My argument is simple: we need a clear strategy from the Government and a commitment, when they make the decision, not to just one short line, but to a network for the country. If the Y line were chosen, I would argue that both branches should be developed in parallel. The eastern side of the country cannot wait until the western line is built for its line to be started. Having such a strategy is important for the development of an industry in this country that can produce the rolling stock and trains and the equipment needed to build the lines. Without that certainty, industry will not invest. It is important that jobs are created, not just through high-speed lines serving the population, but by the generation of economic development through the production of trains, rolling stock and equipment.

11.52 am

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Mr. Fraser, I will restrict my remarks to a few points emphasising the environment. A lot of good things have been said, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate.

I use the train from Glasgow to London regularly and I enjoy my time on it. Taking the train is cheaper and better for the environment than other forms of transport, but it is certainly not faster. Environmental figures from the Association of Train Operating Companies show that rail transport produces 42 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre, road 127 grams and air 144 to 304 grams. I accept that if initially we are to go to Birmingham, that is to do with capacity in south-east England, which must be addressed; but if we are talking about time and, linked to that, the environment, the savings are greater if we can get plane users to switch to rail, and that means running a line to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen much more than to Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds.

There was an interesting discussion yesterday at the all-party rail group about whether we should go for a network immediately, or for a step-by-step approach. I think the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) was right to say that we need a strategic view, even if we build in stages. When the motorway was
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built from Glasgow to London, Scotland built it right up to the border but England failed to build the motorway to match it. We must not do that again. I urge real consultation from the start with whatever Scottish Government are in power. If it is going to take until 2025 just to finish the line to Birmingham, there will presumably be many different Governments here and in Scotland before it is finished. There is support from all parties, but there will also be opposition in all parties.

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