HS2: UpdateNovember 18, 2010
My last correspondence to you was shortly after the Secretary of State, Philip Hammond MP, visited Aylesbury on 30 September. As a result of that meeting, I wrote to Mr Hammond about two issues that needed further discussion. The first letter was about fare prices and whether the probable high cost of tickets will undermine demand for HS2 travel. The second letter raised concerns over the expectation that HS2 will contribute significantly to the regeneration of northern cites. This has now become one of the principal arguments for HS2. In addition to these letters, I have also written to Mr Hammond to ask how spending on HS2 can be justified when the public finances are in such a mess. All of the letters that I have written about HS2, and the recent replies that I have received from the Department and HS2 Ltd about noise impact, route refinement north of the Chilterns and Wendover HS2 Action Group can be viewed on my website at http://davidlidington.wordpress.com/category/high-speed-rail/.
The Transport Committee (TC) is a panel of MPs made up from both sides of the House, whose job it is to scrutinise the government’s transport policy. The TC has agreed to call HS2 Ltd to give evidence as part of its ongoing inquiry into Transport and the Economy. This means that an independent parliamentary body will be looking at what effect the proposed high-speed rail link is likely to have on the British economy. This is good news, but it should be remembered that the Committee will only be looking at the economic impact as part of its wider inquiry, and not at HS2 as a separate issue. I will be contacting the Chair of the TC about this matter and will be back in touch when I have further details. In the meantime, the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence given to the committee on 19 October 2010 contains some interesting points about HS2, which constituents may want to take up with the Secretary of State for Transport. The full transcript can be viewed here.
On 25 October there was a High Speed Rail Lobby Day hosted by Andrea Leadsom MP. Because I was representing this country at an EU Ministerial meeting, I was unable to attend the lobby, but my Parliamentary Assistant, Lee Crouch, attended on my behalf and has reported back to me. The meeting started with transport experts giving presentations on the issues surrounding HS2. Prof. Mike Geddes and Christopher Stokes made particularly strong arguments against HS2’s business case. The Lobby ended with a question and answer session to Philip Hammond MP, Secretary of State for Transport. Theresa Villiers MP, Minister of State for Railways, also attended the Lobby and took questions from the audience.
One argument that came up at the Lobby Day is that the government is being forced to build HS2 as the best solution to the capacity problem on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). The government believes that capacity on the WCML will be exhausted in a maximum of seven to ten years. Many people at the Lobby questioned the accuracy of the data that this argument is based on. I will be writing to Mr Hammond to follow up this point and will put the letter on my website.
An important recent development is the feeling that the government’s reasons for building HS2 are shifting. The original business case is being replaced by an argument that says HS2 is about more than just empirical data, and that it is in the national interest, even if areas like Buckinghamshire will not directly benefit. The message coming from the Department and HS2 Ltd is that a high-speed rail link will help regenerate northern cities and focus the British economy away from London. A number of local groups argue that the evidence to back up this claim seems to be limited, and I made this point to Mr Hammond in my letter dated 5 October about HS2 and the regeneration of northern cities. As I stated in the letter, HS2 Ltd’s report (March 2010) says that it is difficult to predict if the benefits of HS2 will fall in the north or in London (please click here to view the letter in full).. The Secretary of State has said that the business model for HS2 is always evolving, and clearly a project of this size is not just about making the numbers stack up. However, it is vital that the case for HS2 is properly and clearly laid out so that residents and opponents can accurately respond to the consultation that is due in the New Year. I will be writing to the Secretary of State for his assurances that constituents will have an updated and accurate account of the business case for HS2 from the Department when they respond to the consultation.
When any government of any party undertakes a major public project such as HS2 there is a formal process that has to be followed. Within this process, the official time for a government to listen to criticism of their proposals is at the consultation. This does not mean that constituents should not make their feelings known before the consultation, and it is right that residents have already done so. What it does mean is that before the consultation period a government will always defend its chosen policy. After this period it is possible that a government’s plans will change, or at least will be altered, as a result of the evidence that has been given during the consultation.
The opportunity that the consultation presents to affect the proposals should not be underestimated. Theresa Villiers MP said at the lobby that the consultation would be wide ranging and will include the following four key areas: the principle of a high-speed rail link, the corridor of the line, the detail of the route and further provision for those affected by blight. I am aware that some constituents have picked up on the Secretary of State’s exchange with Tony Baldry MP at Transport Oral Questions on 28 October 2010, when he appeared to contradict Mrs Villiers by not including the principle of a high-speed rail link in next year’s consultation, when he said:
“The consultation next year starts from the premise that the Government believe that a high-speed rail network will be in the United Kingdom’s interest, but it will consult on issues to do with the design of that network, the route and the details of the proposals for the London to Birmingham link” (Hansard, Column 443: 28 Oct 2010).
I will be taking up this matter with Mr Hammond to seek his assurance that the consultation will look at the fundamental question of a high-speed rail link as he and the Minister have previously stated.
When carrying out a consultation there is a legal process that governments have to comply with. In addition to the legal requirements of UK Law, governments now also have to abide by EU regulations. For example, there is an EU Directive that requires governments to carry out a proper Environmental Impact Assessment when undertaking projects on the scale of HS2. Initially this assessment is likely to be carried out during the government’s consultation period. I am not a lawyer, so cannot offer an opinion about the government’s actions, but it is up to constituents and HS2 Action Groups to consult a lawyer as they see fit.
It is essential that residents and the local HS2 Action Groups start to co-ordinate their efforts and think about what they want to achieve out of the consultation. That way, we can help to ensure that all the different aspects of the project are covered when responding to the consultation.
I met Wendover residents recently to discuss HS2 and also attended the rally in Great Missenden on 5 November. To keep up to date with my latest actions regarding HS2 please view my website at http://davidlidington.wordpress.com/category/high-speed-rail/.
Member of Parliament for Aylesbury