“The recurring theme from HS2 is to give as little information as possible”

Speech by Lord Berkeley in the House of Lords Second Reading Debate, 14th April 2016.  From Hansard.


My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Mair, on a wonderful maiden speech. One thing he may not know is that his appearance has increased the number of civil engineers in this place by 25%. I would argue that it means there are not enough civil engineers here in the first place. He is very eminent—much more eminent than me, anyway, but I cannot speak for my colleagues—and it is wonderful to have him here. Perhaps a few more will come in later years to boost the engineering expertise in your Lordships’ House.

Many speakers have spoken to support the line. I support HS2 and I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. I have been helping to promote an alternative scheme for Euston station, which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has outlined, and I will speak a little more about that later. Some of your Lordships have questioned what are, for many more people, important details and the attitude of HS2 in responding to them. While I am sure that we should be building a high-speed line, there are high speeds and high speeds. One or two other noble Lords have asked whether we should be designing something for 400 kilometres an hour or 300 kilometres an hour, when the cost of the trains may go up by 50%.

Then there are the higher operation costs. You would probably have to slow down in the long tunnels—we have already debated how long they are. How should we link that with getting in the first instance, to Birmingham 20 minutes quicker but then spending 20 minutes walking from the new station to New Street if you want to go on to Wolverhampton or other stations? We need to look at overall journey times, which many noble Lords have spoken about. At the other end of the spectrum the Euston express scheme, which I shall talk about, would reduce the walking time to the Underground quite significantly. I think there are still debates going on about stations for Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham in phase two. We need to look at all these things to see the most cost-effective solution to getting extra capacity, which I think we are all agreed should happen. So far, I have some serious doubts about the performance of HS2, particularly in respect of its approach to and performance at the House of Commons Select Committee.

Perhaps I may speak briefly about the Euston express scheme. As is normal in France, Germany and Italy, most, if not all, their stations on high-speed lines are not out of town. The high-speed lines do not go into the centre because it is very expensive to demolish inner-city properties. They go on to the classic lines for the last few miles to go into the mainline station, which is often refurbished. This can be seen in France and Germany; I accept that Frankfurt airport is a slight exception but that is the normal trend and it is much less disruptive.

What we can do is put all the trains—HS2 and west coast main line—into the existing bit of the station, by building extra platforms where there are those wide bits and diverting the tunnels on Old Oak Common to pop up near Queen’s Park station, and run down the existing lines. That would involve extending the station southwards towards Euston Road and putting a deck over the whole lot to get an integrated station for all the platforms, which really would enhance the station quite dramatically. More importantly, it would reduce the costs—which I will come back to later—could be done in about half the time and would solve some of the problems that the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, mentioned earlier for the charities. It is part of a petition by Sam Price to the Commons, and I am sure he will be presenting it again in the Lords. Most importantly, discussions with Network Rail, Transport for London and HS2 have demonstrated that there are no show-stoppers, either during the construction or the operation.

I want to concentrate on the process of using the Select Committee to give permissions. I was involved in the committees for the Channel Tunnel, HS1 and Crossrail, and I briefly chaired a Private Bill Committee on a Norfolk Broads Bill. One thing I learned is that committees must act in a judicial capacity when hearing petitions and listening to promoters’ responses. They must listen, and they do, certainly in your Lordships’ House. Having heard the petitions, the committee then forms a view on the issues. It may request further studies from the promoter and publishes reports.

I know that is what our House of Lords committee will do, but sadly my experience hearing the petitions and discussions from many residents’ groups in the Camden area to the Commons committee was that it fell far short of the independence and fairness which I believe is so important for a promoter to get agreement to enhance the credibility of a scheme and its own work. I am not being critical of the decisions that the committee took, but I am critical of the way it appeared —at least when it neared the end of its work and was considering petitions towards the London end—to have more or less given up, lost interest and taken everything that the promoters said or asserted without question. Maybe it is under pressure from Ministers—I do not know—but it should have resisted. My noble friends Lord Stevenson and Lady Young hinted at similar things.

I will give the House one or two examples. Two days before my friend, the petitioner for Euston Express, appeared, HS2 wrote him a letter saying the scheme would not work:

“The EE proposal does not envisage providing the European GC gauge which is a legal requirement”.

Two days later, under cross-examination, HS2 admitted that that was not the case. You cannot change the law in two days. I knew it was not a legal requirement, so why did HS2 write a letter saying it was? It is absolutely fundamental to any scheme that you get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then HS2 said that the Euston Express scheme was more expensive than its scheme. It could not provide any evidence and was challenged in cross-examination. Even after several meetings, it still cannot substantiate the cost of its AP3 scheme at Euston. I do not believe it knows that the costs are, and I suspect that Ministers in the future will be approached by HS2, which will say, “We have a bit of a problem, Minister. Can we have another £10 million or so?” “I don’t know, I’m working on it”. It is not good.

It is not just me and my petitioner friend complaining. Many residents have said to me that the construction will be massively disruptive to their properties and lives in Camden over 20 years. Eventually, HS2 gave them a chart of monthly noise forecasts—which, incidentally, last for 20 years—which arrived the day after the Camden cutting group had appeared in front of the committee. That is not the right way of doing it. They also said that the Euston Express scheme would require a high level of night-time noise due to the need to rebuild some of the tracks. The committee included that in its report without it ever appearing to have been debated.

Finally, those who live in the grade 1 listed buildings beside the track in Camden were told on several occasions by HS2 that they could get double glazing to keep the noise out. I think most of us know that if you have a grade 1 listed building, you cannot put in double glazing that easily—certainly not the plastic type that will probably be wanted.

The recurring theme from HS2 is to give as little information as possible, delay as much as possible and then later on say, “We have not got enough time to do anything, so you have just got to accept our scheme”. The plan that seems to be going through is full of assertions. That is why I have put down these Motions, which I will come to. I hope that Ministers in the mean time will review the whole policy of how HS2 behaves and relates to petitioners, because it is in Ministers’ interests to get it right. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, he may argue that we need only one Select Committee hearing between the two Houses, but it has to be the right one. I am confident that our one will be, but I am not very happy about the way that the Commons one was done.

I turn now to my two Motions on the Order Paper. The first one suggests that the committee hears evidence from London at an early stage. There are two reasons for this. First, sadly, it is a a well-known fact that committees get bored eventually and Ministers put pressure on them to hurry up. Secondly, there is also uncertainty about the plans for Euston, and early consideration of petitions would enable the committee, if it so wished, to instruct HS2 to do further work.

There are a couple of examples of the problem, which Camden is very concerned about—I had an email from it this morning. I have not had anything to do with the rail freight side of this in this petition, but HS2 is saying that it cannot do spoil by rail and is still working on it. At the moment, it is 2,000 trucks a day out of Camden, every day for three years. Can your Lordships imagine that? This was petitioned against two years ago, but they only started talking six months ago and then said it would take nine months or something to produce a report. That is nice, because by the time it has produced a report and it has gone to the committee, and there has been a decision, it will be too late to order rail wagons or get the rail companies involved. They will say it is too late and it has to go by road.

Camden is in the same position over its plans for Euston, which involve having a level deck above and shortening the time. HS2 has promised Camden a report, but it has not come. So it is a question of when the best time is for Camden to petition. It will be speaking to the committee, but there is a whole policy of delay, delay and delay until it is too late. I will not of course press this Motion to a vote, but it is important that your Lordships’ committee understands the problem.

I will just quote one comment from the chair of the Commons Select Committee last year, on 7 July 2015, about Camden and what is happening. The chair said:

“Literally on a number of occasions, we’ve kept saying, ‘When are we going to hear what’s going to happen at Euston?’ Because I would quite like to have dealt with the plans for Euston early in the process, in case they need to be changed, with additional provisions, and if they’re right at the end, then if they’re not right, then it will delay the whole Bill”.

Your Lordships know that we cannot have additional provisions here, so because HS2 has delayed this and been criticised by the committee, it has still not come up with a report. I hope that the committee will look at these very carefully, decide on the best way to do it and then go for it. I do not know whether it is to have two bites of the cherry, but I know that many of the local individual petitioners would like to come on early for those reasons and that it is something to talk about.

Finally—and I apologise for detaining the House for so long—I address what I believe is the need for the committee to have a special adviser on technical and railway matters. I thought that it would be useful to have one, given the comments about no specialists in your Lordships’ House on these issues being allowed on the committee—although I am sure that it will be a very objective and professional committee. In the Commons, it got to the stage when the promoter, HS2, was advising the committee on the merits or otherwise, technically, of promoters’ views. The chair, Robert Syms MP, winding up, said that thanks were extended to HS2 for its helpful advice on the technical interpretation of petitioners’ evidence. He might have added that the committee accepted without challenge much of this advice. That is not how the Select Committee should work, in my view—but that is a matter for the House of Commons. I know that the committee here will not do that, but it might just want to have a special adviser. I am advised by the clerks that if it wants a special adviser there has to be a Motion from this House allowing it to have one.

I shall leave it there. I shall support my noble friend’s petition in the House of Lords. To conclude, I wish the committee well, and am very confident that it will uphold the high reputation that this House has for dealing with things properly, fairly and thoroughly.

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6 comments on ““The recurring theme from HS2 is to give as little information as possible”
  1. Pingback: Vacancy Ahead? – Chair of the Board | Penspot

  2. Pingback: STOP HS2 | Is Higgins off, or is it another HS2 cock-up?

  3. After hs2’s denial of Higgins story surely a question must be asked in Parliament
    I really do not believe this was ‘an error’

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