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Westminster Hall Debate

This is a guest post by Shirley Judges.

Wednesday 13 July saw a real humdinger of a debate in Parliament.  Susan Elan Jones, MP for Clwyd South secured a Westminster Hall debate on HS2, of which she is rabidly in favour because of the benefits she alleges it will bring to Wales.  Her speech was a mind-boggling mix of inaccuracies, inconsistencies and assertions.

Elan Jones’s primary motivation in securing the debate seemed to be the opportunity to take pot-shots at the Secretary if State for Wales.  Cheryl Gillan wasn’t mentioned by name but her backyard and begonias were.  The first of Elan Jones’s misrepresentations was of Gillan’s position:  Gillan is upsetting her constituents by expressing support for the HS2 project – but not the route – and she recently declined to be photographed with local campaigners because they were wearing Stop HS2 T-shirts.

There were of course myriad claims about HS2’s potential benefits for Wales.  One was the link with Europe.  ‘A passenger would be able to travel from continental Europe to Rhyl, Bangor and of course, I would also argue for the inclusion of Wrexham directly,’ Elan Jones said.  Stephen Timms shared her enthusiasm: ‘Does she agree’, he asked, ‘that if the London stop were Stratford and the trains bypassed St Pancras, the length of the journey from Rotterdam to Rhyl could be significantly reduced, which would have widespread advantages?’  Ignoring the ‘ifs’, who are these people?  More to the point, how many are there? Are there really going to be enough people travelling between Rotterdam and Rhyl to justify the huge cost of HS2?   ‘A passenger’ is probably about right.

Elan Jones’s argument seemed to be that HS2 to Birmingham and Manchester would have a beneficial effect on journey times into Wales.  But Guto Bebb, MP for Aberconwy, asked ‘How does the hon. Lady think that the economic case for north Wales will be improved by making the journey time to Manchester 1 hour 10 minutes rather than 1 hour 50 minutes, when north Wales will still be three-and-a-half hours away?’  He added that he travels down to London by train from Chester or Runcorn simply because the North Wales Coast Railway line is so poor.

Another claim was the economic benefits, with, as always, Lille being cited as the example.  According to Elan Jones the TGV connection has led to private investment, jobs and growth in Lille.  But the reality is rather different.  A study of French government statistics has shown that unemployment in Lille has increased both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of France since the arrival of TGV: ‘Therefore there appears very little evidence that investment in high speed rail in France has had any significant impact in reducing regional and local economic disparities based on the most obvious yardstick – unemployment. Over a period of nearly thirty years since TGV services started running, there has clearly been no “transformational” effect, in fact the evidence shows that disparities appear to have worsened.’

As for HS1, Elan Jones claimed that indirectly, it had ‘enabled the delivery of development schemes’, for example in Ebbsfleet, an area in need of regeneration. Has she been there?  Ebbsfleet station is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by car parks only a quarter full and derelict land that was allocated for development but not used.   An OECD report has concluded that there is no evidence in Europe of regeneration resulting from High Speed Rail investments. Interestingly, ‘Paid-for’ vested reports support regenerative effects (e.g. Centro); whereas academic reports (e.g. Imperial College, Warwick University, OECD) do not.

Some MPs had a better grip on reality.  Iain Stewart, a Milton Keynes MP, pointed out that the French have recognised belatedly that better connectivity is needed to Lille, and that it is connectivity, not high speed, that drives the benefits.  He warned that if we get High Speed Rail wrong, ‘we may have an expensive white elephant’.  Nick Smith MP for Blaenau Gwent, was concerned that lines in the valleys and in other parts of Wales, and particularly for the Cardiff-Ebbw Vale line should be electrified, not just the GWR to Cardiff.  Martin Vickers, who represent Cleethorpes, said that his area is desperate for better connections to London.  ‘One worry is that HS2 will suck up all investment resources,’ he said. ‘The minor infrastructure changes that would improve capacity on the east coast main line, and therefore provide capacity for a direct service to the Cleethorpes area, may be lost’ as a result of HS2.  But they were in a minority.

What is really dismaying about the misinformation and assertions, rather than evidence, on which Elan Jones bases her support for HS2 is that it shows that the job in Parliament is not being done.  Too many MPs don’t know the facts about HS2 and are seduced by the rhetoric.

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