Robert Largan (High Peak) (Con)
HS2 is probably the most poorly explained and poorly understood policy in our national discourse. Over the past decade, a series of myths have been perpetuated about it, by a combination of muddled thinking and the efforts of well-funded self-interest groups. I therefore welcome this opportunity to address some of those myths head-on.
First, despite its name, HS2 has never been simply about shaving 30 minutes off journey times down to London. It has always been about tackling the capacity challenge on the country’s most important strategic railway, the west coast main line. If we were to cancel HS2 and do nothing, within a few years this most vital artery of our entire national railway network would quite simply grind to a halt, causing huge damage to our economy, especially in the north and midlands.
I have seen many people claim that the internet and remote working will take care of this problem all by itself, ignoring the fact that—excluding the period of the pandemic—rail passenger figures have gone up in every single year since the internet was invented. They also ignore the issue of rail freight. I am all for harnessing technology, but with the best will in the world we cannot deliver millions of tonnes of goods via Zoom. We are already seeing the consequences of being overly reliant on road haulage, with the problems being caused by the shortage of continental HGV drivers. A failure to invest in our rail freight capacity would only make this situation worse.
Secondly, let us examine the cost of HS2 and let us give the anti-HS2 lobby the benefit of the doubt, taking their absolute worst-case scenarios on both costings and completion date at face value. Doing that, we would be looking at spending just over £5 billion a year; to provide some context, that is about half of what we spend on overseas aid. It is a lot of money, but investing around 0.25% of our GDP every year for a limited period to fix the most important railway network in our country is hardly disproportionate.
Thirdly, perhaps the most common argument against HS2 is that we should prioritise fixing existing commuter rail services instead, which is an argument that buys into a completely false-choice narrative. After all, London was not forced to choose between Crossrail and Thameslink; the north and the midlands should not be forced to make a choice, either. This argument also completely misses the point of HS2, which is to free up capacity on existing commuter lines and enable other transport improvements, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. When the Transport Committee visited Birmingham, we heard very compelling evidence from Andy Street that HS2 also allows improvements such as the midlands rail hub.
My constituency is a good example of this situation. I have two railway lines, which have very limited capacity, that run through one of the busiest corridors in the country—Stockport to Manchester. HS2 would free up that capacity and allow for significant improvement in rail services for places such as Buxton, New Mills, Chinley and Whaley Bridge.
Finally, and most erroneously, a myth has developed that HS2 will be bad for the environment. If people are serious about tackling climate change and decarbonising the economy, I cannot see how they can credibly oppose HS2, a project specifically designed to reduce our reliance on domestic flights and to get cars and HGVs off our roads, shifting people and freight from a high-carbon form of transport to a low-carbon one.
In conclusion, therefore, completing HS2 is good for jobs, good for the economy, good for public transport and good for tackling climate change. It is vital that we keep HS2 on track.