High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill: Revival

(Bill reintroduced: House of Commons)
(Bill reintroduced: House of Commons)
(motion to revive Bill: House of Commons)
Michael Fabricant Excerpts
Monday 2nd March 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Transport
Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
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2 Mar 2020, 8:45 p.m.

I welcome the Minister to his place. The Labour party is supportive of the motion—as can be seen from the massed ranks of the Opposition behind me right now!—because we see HS2 as key to boosting regional economies and reducing climate emissions. It is essential for increasing rail capacity and freeing up other lines for freight use. I rather think that some of the troubles we have had with High Speed 2 might have been avoided had we come up with another name for it, but that is by the by.

Successive Conservative Transport Ministers have shown themselves lacking in competence and unable to oversee the finances and governance of HS2, among other infrastructure projects. In recent years, the Government have presented inaccurate information to both Parliament and the public about the cost of HS2. The public need to have confidence in the project, but sadly the Government have undermined that with their failure to exercise any control over not only costs but redundancy payments. There is real concern that the true costs of the project were known to be much higher than the figures that the Government continually promoted. As the project progresses, it is essential that there is much greater transparency.

In addition, when the contracts for phase 1 were being granted, despite hedge fund managers making a packet out of the inevitable demise of Carillion, this Tory Government crashed on regardless, awarding the doomed organisation a valuable HS2 contract.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
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2 Mar 2020, 8:44 p.m.

I am curious. The hon. Gentleman says that he does not believe the figures for the cost of HS2 reflect reality. He may well be right. What does he think HS2 will cost?

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
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2 Mar 2020, 8:44 p.m.

We are told that the cost has risen from £57 billion to £80 billion, and rumour has it that it is now more than £100 billion. I am not in a position to make an informed judgment because I am not in possession of the information that Ministers have, but people are understandably concerned about costs increasing at such a rate.

Break in Debate

Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Mullan
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2 Mar 2020, 9:03 p.m.

I cannot pretend, as a new Member, to have my hon. Friend’s knowledge of the intricate detail and the history of the development of the railway line. However, whether we support or oppose it, we all have a duty, when decisions on individual stations are looked at in detail, always to be open-minded to change if things are undergoing scrutiny. Ultimately, as I will come on to say, if we are building a major new railway it is inevitable that some people will face a negative environmental impact and some will have some part of the railway deposited on their patch, which they are not happy with. If we allowed that to, in effect, put a moratorium on the development of major infrastructure, that would not be the right decision for this country, even if individual Members were unhappy with it.

On what does work for my constituents, they are not very interested in getting to London 30 minutes quicker; they really are not very interested in that. What they are interested in, and what we must remind them of in terms of what we get from HS2, is that it opens up capacity as we shift inter-city traffic on to HS2 so there are more routes and journeys available to them. Faster routes tend to push the local services off the track. They welcome HS2 because it means we can transport more freight by rail. Local businesses in my area cannot get freight on to rail. When they can do that, they will be more competitive and we will move congestion off the roads. If you drive around the A roads in Crewe at night, you will see lorry after lorry after lorry parked up. That is how things are moved around and we need to switch back to the railway.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant
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2 Mar 2020, 9:04 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend not realise that there is a danger that for constituencies such as mine that are not directly served by HS2—of which there are many along the west coast main line—moving freight on to the west coast main line could result in a diminution of passenger services to cities such as Lichfield?

Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Mullan
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I go back to my original point: at the moment, those more local services are hampered by the use of the west coast main line for freight and inter-city services. We will see an opening up of local routes if we move ahead with HS2, not a diminution of them.

On passengers and peak-time travel, at the moment price control is used to control peak-time travel. People cannot come down to London at 8 o’clock because the tickets are extortionate, primarily because that is the only way that we can manage the over-capacity at peak times. If we move the inter-city journeys at peak times on to HS2, there will be more, cheaper, accessible peak-time travel on the west coast main line and it will still get people to London in an hour and a half.

Another thing that my constituents will welcome is the link to the northern regions through Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Break in Debate

Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Mullan
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Absolutely. Inevitably, projects overrun. That is unfortunate and not something that we welcome, but they do, and the fact that this has overrun should not mean that we therefore cancel it, because other people have not had to make the same choice in the south.

HS2 is a fantastic opportunity for Crewe. We have an amazing heritage and enormous local expertise in the rail industry. Crewe is and has always been a fantastic railway town. Passing the Bill and the delivery of the railway will create thousands of skilled jobs in Crewe for people helping to build the railway line.

I understand the concerns about the natural environment and I commend colleagues from constituencies where the impact will be greatest for speaking up on behalf of their residents. That is absolutely the right thing for them to do, but as I mentioned, any new major railway line connecting our cities and towns will have some degree of environmental impact. That is inevitable. We must be realistic about whether some of the strongest critics—they are not all in this House; some are outside this place—will ever really be satisfied. If we listen too closely to the voices of opposition in terms of trees and the environment, we will put a moratorium on creating major new rail and road infrastructure in this country, and that cannot be the right decision.

It is simply not feasible to suggest that we can deliver significant new capacity on our railway networks through a piecemeal approach. Network Rail estimates that it would take almost 30 years of weekend closures for even less of a result in terms of increased capacity. When this was last done on the west coast main line, the budget exploded. It might be harder to track and there might be fewer newspaper-worthy headline figures, but hundreds of smaller projects are at just as big a risk of overrunning and overspending. We need to get better at controlling costs when building infrastructure, full stop. The answer is not to halt the big-ticket items where the failings are most easily seen, because they are there on small projects, too. It is just not so easy for a journalist to add up the figures over 100 different projects and put that in a newspaper. We should not listen to that kind of criticism; it is not valid.

I recognise the significant costs involved, but this is being spent across two decades. It will work out as approximately £4.4 billion a year. The context of the timescales is too often lost when we use the headline figure. Network Rail spends around £6 billion a year on maintaining and making much smaller upgrades to our rail network, and we are planning to spend £40 billion over the next five years on other projects outside HS2. The idea that we could build a brand-new major railway line for much less than the £6 billion a year already being spent is fantasy. Let’s be ambitious for our nation. Let’s look forward, not down at our feet, get on with delivering this project and send the message to the world that the UK is open for business.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
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2 Mar 2020, 9:10 p.m.

I note with interest that the motion talks about revival. To me, it is the revival of a corpse; it’s like a Hammer movie. We talk about connectivity. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) talked about the need for additional capacity, and I agree, but let us at least do it properly. The aim was to get people off aircraft—people who want to fly to Paris from Manchester, for example—but that isn’t going to happen, is it? Instead of going to St Pancras, connecting with HS1 and going straight through to Paris, people will have to change in London. It will not replace air travel. Yes, it will provide extra connectivity, as far as Crewe and London are concerned, but it will not meet the guidelines of what was originally intended for HS2.

Why is it going in straight lines? It is going in straight lines because it was intended to go at 220 mph, but the Oakervee review says it will not go at that speed; to save money, it will go at about 150 or 160 mph instead, in which case it could have gone alongside the M40 or the M1, as Arup originally proposed, which would have saved at least £20 billion of taxpayers’ money and been less environmentally damaging.

When it comes to a vote, if it does come to a vote this evening, I will vote against revival, but not because I am against extra capacity. Of course I want extra capacity and of course I recognise that the west coast main line is working at near-100% capacity, but I totally disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who completely misunderstands the situation. It is fine for Crewe, but not for all those towns, such as Stone and others, along the west coast main line; extra freight on that line will mean less passenger traffic. Anyone with an ounce of mathematical or engineering skill can see that.

I am very angry about this. When I see a project that could have been done so well destroyed by people such as Lord Adonis and then rather stupidly adopted by a Conservative Government, when we could have had an HS2 based on the Arup plan, which would have been cheaper, connected better and been environmentally less damaging, I ask: has the House lost its mind? When I see the Labour party supporting the Government, I know the House has lost its mind, because whenever there is agreement between both sides of the House we know something is wrong.

Some might call this a revival, but for me it is a dead, rotten corpse that we are trying to bring to life. Despite the Government’s support—and despite the fact that the former Mayor of London said that Euston was not capable of moving traffic away from it now, let alone with HS2, because there is not enough capacity on tube trains or for buses for all the people coming down now—I am afraid I have to oppose it, not just for the sake of the people of Lichfield, but in the hope that maybe some day someone in this House will say, “Enough is enough. If we are going to do something, let’s at least do it properly”.

Theo Clarke Portrait Theo Clarke (Stafford) (Con)
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2 Mar 2020, 9:14 p.m.

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.

Break in Debate

Theo Clarke Portrait Theo Clarke
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2 Mar 2020, 9:19 p.m.

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.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant
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2 Mar 2020, 9:18 p.m.

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s stance on the Handsacre link, but, given that it is in my constituency, does she understand the distress that it is causing people in Armitage with Handsacre?

Theo Clarke Portrait Theo Clarke
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2 Mar 2020, 9:18 p.m.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

When people in my constituency say that they are opposed to HS2, it is not because they are nimbys—as some have accused them of being—and I have not met a single resident who has not told me that that they want more investment in the north, and specifically in the west midlands. However, those residents are opposed to being treated as an inconvenience because their homes happen to be in the way of a railway that the Government want to build. They shudder when they hear that savings need to be found, because if past experience is anything to go by, it will not be HS2 salaries that go down; it will be the purchase prices and compensation paid to my constituents. However, I hope I am proved wrong.

Let me be clear: HS2 is going to happen, and if there is a vote tonight, I will reluctantly support the Government, but if HS2 is going to hang over the heads of my constituents, we must get on with it as soon as we can. Our first priority must be to finalise all the negotiations that are taking place and let my constituents get on with their lives. The advert once said “Let the train take the strain”, and I hope it does, because at present the strain that it is putting on my constituents is unacceptable. I support the Government in building national infrastructure, but the lack of adequate compensation for my constituents and the delays by HS2 are simply unacceptable. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his assurances on compensation, but I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for clarity on when it will be delivered. I also want to ask the Minister and his departmental officials to sit down with me to go through every single outstanding case in Stafford to ensure that my constituents are no longer left in HS2 limbo. They deserve that from the Government.