HS2: winning the argument in Parliament

HS2 phase one has developed support from MPs but Monday’s debate showed there are concerns to be addressed as the Bill moves to committee stage.

To hear the paper’s tell it on Monday morning, the second reading vote on the HS2 bill was going to be a close call. As it turned out, it was as a long, long way from that.

A bid by ex-Tory minister and MP for Chesham & Amersham Cheryl Gillan to halt the scheme was defeated with cross party support by 451 votes to 50, a majority of 401.

The Bill now moves into the committee stage for at least a year and the hands of the six MPs on the Bill committee (see story).

During the six and a half hour debate arguments swung back and forth as to the merits of the High Speed link to Birmingham and its potential second phase north, with benefits in terms of extra capacity, connectivity and economy matched by concerns about noise pollution, environmental damage, blight and cost.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin set out the case for the investment arguing the west coast main line is the railway equivalent of an ancient Roman road. “Today we ask far too much of the line. If we are talking roads, it would be as if traffic still had to go up Watling Street, as if the M1 and M6 had never been built and we tried to solve our transport needs by patching up old roads – a roundabout here, a bridge there- as if incremental change could make all the difference.

“Well we tried that, we spent £9bn upgrading the west coast main line a decade ago and much of that work did not even get south of Rugby. Cities and towns in the north deserve better. Britain deserves better.”

Labour’s Frank Field (Birkenhead) suggested that the Government “have failed to meet their targets in reducing the structural deficit, more than 60% of the cuts wait until the next Parliament and therefore there will be a real shortage of capital; does the Secretary of State really think that even if this line is built to Birmingham, it will go beyond?”

But McLoughlin’s speech indicated he did not feel this was a concern.

Those opposed to the project put a determined case.

Frank Dobson (Holborn & St Pancras, Con) was passionately against the redevelopment of Euston. “The neighbourhoods to the east and west of Euston station and its railway approaches are densely populated with a variety of uses. Most of the streets are overwhelmingly residential. ……Most of those residents want to continue to live there. They rightly resent patronising references to the neighbourhood by the much lauded chair of HS2 Ltd and have asked me to remind him and everyone else that where they live is not like the Olympic site. It is not a brownfield site, ripe for redevelopment. The HS2 project as now proposed would wreak havoc on those neighbourhoods. The people I represent believe that HS2 should not go ahead. Failing that, they believe that HS2 should terminate at Old Oak Common, at least temporarily ….If Government insists on Euston, local people want the new station to be designed to fit within the curtilage of the existing station.”

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield, Con)picked up on the lack of a link between HS2 and HS1. “I believe that the implementation is deeply flawed. There will be no connection between the Midlands and the North and HS1 and the Channel Tunnel. Meanwhile, the Department for Transport, which is supposed to be an integrated, joined-up department, has, quite rightly, commissioned the review by Sir Howard Davies of which airport is to be the main airport for London. We will not know its conclusions until after the next general election, yet HS2’s route is already fixed and we do not know which airport it will link to. Indeed, it probably will not link with any airport, like HS1. This is a deeply flawed system.But there were more voices in favour, most notably from the Labour side which had had doubts about a scheme that it had introduced in Government through then transport secretary and now Lord, Andrew Adonis.

Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh (Wakefield, Lab) in her response to McLoughlin’s speech made clear that her party’s renewed confidence in the project was in part the result of the arrival of David Higgins and Simon Kirby on the HS2 team. “The Higgins review has shown where costs can be brought down. The key risk to the project costs is political delay. We have also looked at the strategic alternatives, as we did in government, and we believe that HS2 is the best way to move to the low carbon transport infrastructure that our country needs if we are to meet our climate change emissions targets.

Transport committee chair Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside, Lab/Co—op) said that little attention had been given to the major potential from the scheme for employment across the country. “According to Government, this could provide over 3000 jobs in running the railway and more than 24,500 jobs in construction together with 400,000 additional jobs through regeneration. It is essential the Department for Transport produces a strategy for procurement to deliver maximum opportunities for British firms. The Department must be more active in doing that.”

Transport minister Robert Goodwill’s closing speech told MPs they were making “a great decision, one of national importance, one that ill profoundly affect the way our economy develops for generations. The House must be satisfied with the need for HS2, and it must be satisfied that the appropriate measures are in place to deliver the scheme in a sustainable way, both economically and environmentally. HS2 will help drive this country forward ….It will join up our great cities and strengthen our economy. As a result, it will help open up opportunities currently held back by lack of investment. Along the way, it will be subject to careful, detailed scrutiny. Tonight’s vote is an important step in taking HS2 forward and I urge right hon. and hon. Members to support the Bill for phase 1.”

You can read the full debate here

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