High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill: Revival DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Geoffrey Clifton-BrownMain Page: Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Conservative - The Cotswolds)
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In a nutshell, I am seeking an assurance from the Minister, which I hope I will be able to get before the end of these proceedings, that phase 2a should be reviewed by Sir John Armitt at the same time as phase 2b, for which he has already been given terms of reference. Basically, it boils down to this: it is being suggested that the construction of phase 2a should follow quickly after phase 1—this view has been reinforced by the Oakervee review, which concluded that the Government should consider merging the construction of phase 2a with phase 1—but this is not only an unnecessary but an undesirable idea, and furthermore it is unrealistic.
I refer now to the actual motion before the House, which says that the Bill
“if…presented to this House in this session in the same terms as those in which the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill stood at the last stage of its proceedings…the Bill…shall be deemed to have passed through all its stages in this House, and…the Standing Orders”
adjusted accordingly. Given this motion and the arguments I am presenting, that means that we are bound to have regard to what the Bill says, and the extent to which it will be dealt with under the procedures that follow these novel and unique changes to the Standing Orders.
As we heard from the Minister, phase 1 of HS2 received Royal Assent in February 2017. It has not progressed because the main works civil contractors have been unable to come up with a design that can be delivered for the budget available. Phase 2a has not yet received Royal Assent, so we are at least a couple of years away from all this happening. Given the proposed changes to the Standing Orders, and the manner in which it is deemed that the Bill is being carried forward, is important to note that phase 2a is required only if phase 2b west is constructed according to current proposals. Crucially, those proposals could be changed by the Armitt review, and all that phase 2a would effectively achieve would be to connect HS2 to the west coast main line approximately 58 km further north—at Blakenhall, south of Crewe—rather than at the Handsacre link. With the estimated cost of phase 2a now rising to £6.6 billion, it is not wise—this is the crucial point—to commit to phase 2a without knowing what Sir John Armitt might conclude regarding phase 2b.
This project will cause immense damage to my constituents, although I will not expand on that at this juncture as that point is related to ground conditions and matters that I could go into in more detail only if I had more time. In a nutshell it comes to this: HS2 Ltd produced a report in 2019, and it is clear that it faces a shortfall of fill along the entire length of phase 2a. Such fundamental questions can be taken into account under the proposed changes to the Standing Orders now being discussed only if realism prevails.
Will the Minister use this opportunity to give an assurance on the Floor of the House that phase 2a will be treated, in some shape or form, in the context of what Sir John Armitt will consider with regard to phase 2b? The two things are interlinked, and as this is a railway that goes from north to south, it is essential that it all fits together. If phase 2b is to be reviewed by Sir John Armitt, for the reasons I have already given it is essential that phase 2a is also considered in the review by Sir John Armitt. Otherwise—I say this with a great generosity of heart—the Minister may find that if he does not do what I am suggesting, they will get to phase 2b and find that phase 2a does not work. If that does not work, we will end up with a railway that is not be capable of being constructed.
In light of the changes to the Standing Orders, I am offering a realistic appraisal that will make possible a proper review not only of phase 2b, but of phase 2a, which is what the Bill is about. I do not need to expand on that any more. I am concerned about compensation for my constituents, and about a range of other matters that lie outside the motion before us. In a nutshell, it is essential that phase 2a and phase 2b are somehow brought within the framework of the terms of reference issued by the Government for Sir John Armitt to consider. If we get that, we will at least be able to have a proper consultation, and on that I rest my case.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, because this matter is hugely important to my constituency. I welcome the revival of the Bill, and hopefully its imminent passage, as evidence of the Government backing Crewe and backing the north. If you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to explain why I support the revival of the Bill.
I was glad to have had the opportunity to host the Minister at Crewe station just last week, where he got to hear first-hand about what is already happening locally: businesses opening up in Crewe and the plans Cheshire East Council has to create a new economic hub around the station. The revival of the Bill will accelerate the positive changes we see locally.
Break in Debate
I am pleased that the Government have finally made a decision on HS2, and I welcome the fact that the uncertainty over the project is now at an end. Many of my constituents who are directly affected disagree with the project but have told me over the last few weeks that the overwhelming feeling now is that if we are going to do it, we should get on with it but do it properly. However, throughout my constituency, compensation claims remain unresolved, house purchases have entered another year of limbo, and farms and local businesses have been left wondering whether they can prevent themselves from becoming insolvent before HS2 will agree to a settlement.
Let me give some specific examples. Mr and Mrs Tabernor have told me that their farmhouse may be demolished, and they have been told by HS2 Ltd that they cannot retire and move to their farm cottage, allowing their son to live in the farmhouse, because that would invalidate their blight notice. They have already been waiting for years for a resolution, and that, in my view, is simply unacceptable. After five years or more of negotiation, Ingestre Park Golf Club is also still waiting for HS2 to come to the table and finally thrash out a reasonable agreement, and that too is not acceptable.
Residents of Hopton, Marston and Yarlet, whose house sales remain in limbo, have told me that they cannot make an offer for a new home because some Stafford estate agents now refuse to deal with anyone selling to HS2. It concerns me that they view HS2 as either too unresponsive or too difficult to deal with: that hardly gives confidence to me or my constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall be doing that.
On a general note, when it comes to negotiating, let me make something clear. When people from HS2 visit the homes of my constituents, say that they are there to listen to their concerns, sit there having a cup of and a biscuit, and then tell them that they are being over-optimistic to expect to be paid the price at which their house or business has been valued and give them the silent treatment when they do not agree, that is not a negotiation; it is a bullying tactic. I was pleased when the Prime Minister, responding to my recent question to him in the Chamber, acknowledged that compensation needed to be paid, and I agree with him that we need an overhaul of HS2 Ltd, which, in my opinion, has managed the project poorly.
I was devastated to learn from so many of my constituents that they had agreed to sell their homes—in some cases, their long-standing family homes, where they had raised their children—for less than the market value, and that their mental health could not cope with the pressure that they felt they were being put under by HS2. If I sound angry, it is because I am. Let me provide some context for that
My very first piece of constituency casework on HS2 involved a member of my team who was counselling, and helping to secure mental health support for, one of my constituents who had told me that he could no longer cope with the pressure he was under. He said that everything was going to the wall because HS2 had refused to finalise negotiations. After lengthy and protracted work in an attempt to reach an agreement to move his family business, he was told by HS2 that it would prefer to “extinguish” the business. If a private company were operating in that way, it would be featured on the BBC’s “Watchdog” programme. HS2 must be held to account for its actions.
Let me be very clear. If my constituents are forced to take the strain of this project, they should also reap the rewards. I am pleased that the Government have finally committed themselves to the Handsacre link, which is vital now that the project is going ahead in Staffordshire.
Break in Debate
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has been a long-term opponent of the scheme, but I would say that the motion before the House tonight is very limited. There will be many future occasions to debate the issue, I am sure.
There are about six minutes left, so, Mr Speaker, if you will allow me, I must make some progress in responding to some of the comments made by right hon. and hon. Members. The Prime Minister has made a firm commitment that we will get hold of this project and have a firm grip on it. It goes alongside a programme of wider transport investment. The Prime Minister outlined a vision for a revolution in local transport to ensure that our towns and cities in every region have the modern joined-up network needed to fire up economic growth.
Let me turn to the points raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has been a vocal opponent of HS2 for many years, speaking frequently and eloquently on behalf of his constituents, and I understand the concerns he has expressed tonight. He asks whether I would consider not providing phase 2a until the phase 2b review has been completed, so that phase 2a can be looked at again in the light of the integrated rail plan. What I would say to him is that in giving his go-ahead to HS2 in this House on 11 February, the Prime Minister committed the Government to getting on with building phase 2a immediately and this has been reflected in the terms of reference set out for the integrated rail plan. However, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns, and although I cannot change the terms of that review I am keen to work with him to ensure that the views of his constituents are heard throughout this process. I am therefore happy to commit to working with him and facilitating meetings with HS2 Ltd to address the deep concerns that I know he still holds as the Bill completes its passage.
I am sorry, but we are perilously close to running out of time. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) spoke eloquently in support of the motion. He is right on capacity and he is right in what he said on carbon. I want to reassure him that the Government are taking decisive action to restore discipline to the programme and I welcome the oversight that will be brought by the Public Accounts Committee to that project.