All 1 John Spellar contributions to the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Act 2021

Tue 19th Jan 2021
High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill
Commons Chamber

Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons & Ping Pong

High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill

John Spellar Excerpts
Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons
Tuesday 19th January 2021

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Act 2021 - Hybrid Bill Page Read Hansard Text
Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con) [V]
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There is less justification for this grossly overpriced project than there was when Labour first proposed it. It is the most expensive way to destroy lives and homes, and tear apart the environment. It also ensures that highly paid HS2 personnel continue to bulldoze through this unpopular project. Public polls show it is an unpopular scheme, and Chris Packham’s petition to halt it in its tracks has already attracted over 136,000 signatures. It is a shame that the Government and this Minister, excellent though he is, do not have the courage to cancel it or suspend construction.

Turning to the Lords amendments, because three minutes really is not enough, Lords amendment 2 applies to all phases of HS2, including the one that tears through the heart of Chesham and Amersham. It covers all ancient woodland, but I am not sure it goes far enough. For example, there has been an ancient oak tree on a property of one of my constituents, but it was on land that was only potentially required during the construction of the railway. It was cut down. There was not the accompanying consultation and the destruction was probably unnecessary, but HS2 did it because it could. That, for me, is not good enough. I hope that Lords amendment 2, now accepted by the Government, will at least go wider and ensure that consultations do take place. I hope that individual trees will be covered and that the reports the Minister gets will include how wildlife is affected, such as the barbastelle bats that have been disturbed at Jones’ Hill wood in my constituency. When HS2 was told it had to stop cutting down trees, it immediately put up very powerful lights at night so that would cause damage to the bats and the environment—so thoughtless and such a cavalier attitude to this rare species.

Turning to Lords amendment 3, the Minister mentioned the cost of £350,000. Let us get that in proportion. It is less than half a year’s salary of the chief executive of HS2. I hope the consultation further up the track will be superior to that exhibited in phase 1 in our area. Our local Chilterns Conservation Board experienced the superficial engagement from HS2, which alienated communities and risks designs, such as that for the Amersham vent shaft, being foisted on our community. They are going to build a headhouse that will stand out like a sore thumb in perpetuity. If that is what consultation means for HS2, beware all of you on the phase 2 line of route. So far, consultation has proved to be poor and inaccurate. On this and on many other parts of the construction, HS2 has failed to inform, consult, communicate and engage meaningfully with the people in communities affected by this wasteful project. At a time when our financial resources should be directed to the benefit of the whole UK, it is a project that is to the detriment of the many and of benefit to the highly paid few.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
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To follow on from the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), I find it slightly bizarre that at a time when rail travel has been upended and changed dramatically, there was no mention of that in the Minister’s comments. Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” The pandemic has certainly changed the facts even more than those who questioned the original rationale of this project could have anticipated. It has especially highlighted the contrast between the grand projet—the great project—and the incremental improvement of capacity. That is what the Eddington report, produced back in the early 2000s, highlighted. It should have been listened to much more.

That is to some extent on the supply side. The impact on the demand side has been dramatic. The question is whether that is a blip or an oscillation, or a structural seismic shift. Has it, in fact, changed travel patterns for good, both for conurbation commuting and for inter-city travel? One factor will be possible annual recurrences of the pandemic, as with flu. It may not be as dramatic in a future wave, but it will certainly have an impact.

We have also seen work patterns change. We see that here, with many people working from home. They may not continue to do that all the time, but they may well be working split weeks. That will have an impact on demand. Far more meetings are now conducted by Zoom. That process has accelerated dramatically in a way that nobody, not even the founders of such companies, anticipated. If those meetings patterns change, what will that do to daytime inter-city travel? Will there actually be the demand? Will having the west coast main line and HS2 not actually mean that both become unviable?

I have to ask the Minister, in the light of those developments, whether the Transport Department has actually reassessed the fundamentals of the project—what work has it done on it? While considering the Lords amendments, and given the astronomical sums involved, should there not be a pause and a reassessment, which could require a complete rethink of the project? We may have sunk a few billions—the sunk costs argument is always attractive and seductive but fundamentally wrong—but do we really want to continue to spend tens of billions more?

Owen Paterson Portrait Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con) [V]
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It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. I begin by thanking the noble Lord Rosser for taking up the cause of my constituents in the village of Woore, a small village where Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire meet; Woore actually means boundary. It comprises a strip of about a mile and a half entailing Ireland’s Cross down to Pipe Gate, with a footpath that crosses the road three times. The road is already inadequate for modern traffic, yet perversely, HS2 has decided to go on three sides of a rectangle to take, at the peak, 300 heavy goods vehicles per day—a total of 130,000 extra heavy goods vehicle movements over seven years.

That road is completely inadequate as it stands, and I take my hat off to the parish council and Mr Cowey, the chairman, for battling for those who live in Woore. It is now really urgent, and I welcome the fact that the Government have endorsed and will adopt these amendments, because we have to move rapidly. I will be in Woore again tomorrow morning talking to HS2 and Shropshire Council. We proposed 38 mitigation measures and are down to 33. These are now really important. They mean more than just turning the crossing into a pelican crossing or having a lollipop lady at busy times, when 65 children try to get to their school. I am seriously concerned for the safety of my constituents. The construction phase will begin shortly; it sadly looks as though this project will go ahead.

It really is important that we have a proper consultation and that the Minister, as he is bound to by Lords amendment 3, listens carefully, and that he ensures that those mitigation measures are pushed through and financed by HS2. We plan to spend, apparently, £80 billion, according to the House of Commons Library. It was £30 billion when I was in the Cabinet. I was told we were going to link it up to HS1 and go to Heathrow, but we are not; we are going to somewhere called Old Oak Common. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) said, this project is now completely out of date. We can use Zoom and Teams. It would be far better to spend £30 billion of that giving every single household in this country top-class superfast broadband.

However, sadly, this project has its own momentum. If I had the chance tonight, I would vote against it again. I thank the Minister very much for adopting Lords amendment 3 and taking on this consultation, but will he absolutely promise my constituents in Woore that those 33 proposed mitigation measures will be financed by HS2 and will be implemented before those 300 trucks a day start pounding down the narrow lane and past that footpath that crosses the road three times?

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The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) questioned the reason for moving forward with HS2 at the current time. As he will be aware, the Government’s top priority at the moment is dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, but this is ultimately a project for the long term. Phase 1 of the railway is not expected to be opened until 2029 to 2033. Whatever projections we come to about the impact of covid on the business case, this is a long-term investment that is about transforming rail journeys in the UK and freeing up the existing network.
John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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rose—

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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In case it pre-empts a point that the right hon. Gentleman is about to make, I will just add that the revised business case will be published when we make an investment decision. While I cannot come out with a revised business case today, before the Treasury commits, there will be a revised business case based on that investment decision, and similar to phase 1, we will publish that business case for all to see and scrutinise.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Are the Government undertaking an assessment of whether patterns of travel have structurally changed or whether this is just a temporary blip? If patterns of travel have changed, the whole basis of this scheme may have done as well.

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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We can all see that patterns of travel have changed in the short term, but we are not sure how long that will last. The uncertain end of covid-19—we will get through this, but we are not sure when—means that it is quite hard to predict how long the impact will be. Many studies are going on into this—many academic studies and lots of thought. My personal view is that the global trend we have seen across the world of urbanisation and of people wanting to live in cities and commute between those cities is something we will continue to see. We have seen that in parts of the world that have been affected by previous pandemics and virus outbreaks.

I still think that many people in this country will want to live in cities. When I was growing up, Manchester was like a ghost town and Leeds was similar. Now they are thriving cities and places where people want to live. Therefore I think that projects such as HS2, which is about connecting up the largest cities, still hold sway. As I say, this is an investment for the long term, and phase 1 will not be opening until 2029 at the absolute earliest. I think there is still a strong rationale for it.

I am happy to commit to continuing to keep the House updated. When I was in front of the Transport Committee earlier this month, I committed to informing the House of our thinking about HS2 in my six-monthly report to Parliament. The next six-monthly report on HS2 will be in April, so I intend to give more of the Government’s thinking then. Also, if there is a general debate on this issue, when I am sure lots of these points will be made, I am sure I will be much more closely challenged on the broader point.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Is one of the main drivers not peak-time capacity and daytime capacity? Inter-city travel is very much driven by business travel. We have seen how remote conferencing—Zoom we call it, but there are all the other companies as well—has changed the ways in which people are undertaking those meetings. Might that not really drive down use, so that we do not need that peak-time capacity? In the evenings, there is no problem at all, and that may be when people travel for leisure. Has there not possibly been a significant change?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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This matter really needs its own debate—I am sure it will get one—where we can go through these things in some depth. What I will say is that if we look at the aspirational growth plans of some of the cities we intend to connect, we see that Leeds, for example, intends to double the size of the city centre. We are going to see different people wanting to use transport. We are certainly going to see changes. How long those last for, who knows? We have all in this House spent many months now on Zoom. I cannot wait for us to return to normality and to get back to face-to-face meetings. This is a debate for another day, however, and with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will try to get back to the topic and the amendments in hand. I am more than happy to debate this topic with the right hon. Gentleman at another stage.

Turning to the comments from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) about the village of Woore in his patch, and the impact on that particularly affected parish, I am more than happy to commit to meeting him to discuss the challenges in that area, as well as the undertakings and assurances that have been given, to ensure that we continue to mitigate where we can the impact on his local residents. While the Bill contains numerous undertakings and assurances, it is an ongoing process, and we need to ensure that we are continually looking at the best available evidence of the impacts and mitigating wherever we can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) spoke with passion about his constituency. He has met me many times about this topic. He is one of the directly affected line-of-route MPs on the 2a route. I am very keen to visit his constituency. He has invited me a number of times to meet specific residents and some of the directly impacted local groups. I am very keen to do so when it is safe for me to do that.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) talked about environmental reporting and his concerns that, if HS2 does that via a sustainability report, there could be an element of HS2 marking its own homework. I want to be clear that that is something about which I am very passionate. I want to see HS2 setting a good standard—a new standard—for environmental sustainability reporting. I touched on that point in my last six-monthly report to Parliament. I hope to provide more details in my next six-monthly report.

I am committed to ensuring that the project starts the reporting in a way that looks at all the material impacts and in a way that is seen as credible by stakeholders, and not just greenwashing or something else. The board of HS2 Ltd has now formed an environmental sub-committee chaired by Allan Cook that is looking at this, among other issues. I really want to get environmental sustainability reporting right: it needs to be at the heart of this increased transparency from HS2 Ltd. I am therefore more than happy to meet hon. and right hon. Members to discuss the details of how we get it right, not just on reporting about ancient woodland but on reporting about a whole range of environmental impacts.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) again questions the demand for HS2. I think we have covered that quite well. I am more than happy, obviously, to write to him. As I said, I hope to shed some light on that in my next six-monthly report, but I am sure it will also be the focus of future debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) talked with passion about her constituency and the need for the consultation provided for under amendment 3. She lobbied me very hard about amendment 3, as she has about a number of land and property cases since being elected to this House. I pay tribute to her as a doughty champion for her constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) talked about the benefits to his area—comments that were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who sees the benefits to Crewe. I was pleased to be able to visit Crewe prior to the start of the pandemic to meet my hon. Friend and the local council leader to talk about the benefits for regeneration in Crewe. Amendment 3 is important for further consultation with residents in Staffordshire and in Cheshire to ensure that we are taking all people’s views into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) also talked about amendment 3 and the importance of consulting with Staffordshire because, again, he recognises the benefits.

The Bill itself concerns 36 miles of track between Fradley in the west midlands and Crewe in Cheshire. At its conclusion, the Bill is accompanied by over 17,000 pages of environmental assessment and a register of undertakings and assurances that make over 1,500 individual commitments to petitioners and other interested parties about matters they have raised during its passage. The Bill has been scrutinised carefully by both Houses and improvements have been made to it.

I am sure that the wider debate about HS2, on which we have been slightly exercised tonight, will continue for many months and years. I look forward to further engagements as we prepare for the next stage of HS2—the hybrid Bill taking HS2 from Crewe into Manchester. It is right that we debate this project because it is of such significance nationally, and also so costly at a time of so many pressures on the public finances.

At its heart, though, HS2 is a project that will connect people and places. It is a project that will help the country to level up and help us to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, it is my view that we must get on with it. We must equip our people with the training and education needed to undertake the highly skilled roles in planning, in engineering and in constructing this railway. We must offer the jobs promised and get shovels in the ground. This Bill is a small part of a bigger project that will create much-needed capacity on our rail network. I believe that opponents—they may disagree—are short-sighted.

It is right that people stay at home now and we reduce travelling to an absolute minimum, but this will not last forever, as we will defeat the virus. The pandemic will end. People will travel again, both for business and for leisure. When that time comes, I want people to be connected. I want this House to have thought about the long-term future of our country and to have planned for it. I want to join up the west midlands and Crewe. I want us to drive investment in infrastructure, in skills and in growth across a whole levelled-up country. In short, I want this Bill to pass.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 12 agreed to.