“… a prospective expenditure of between 15.8 billion pounds – that is more than £15,000 million plus – and 17.4 billion pounds…. when the overwhelming focus of public debate in political terms in recent months has been on the necessity for retrenchment… the time saving estimated to be 21 minutes. …”
Jeremy Quin opened the meeting.
Thank you for coming in such huge numbers on a very wet night, with very, very little notice.
Last Thursday, Lord Adonis, the Secretary of State for transport announced one single preferred route for the London to Birmingham High Speed Rail Link. It is something that very grievously affects a lot of our communities. It was very apparent speaking to people on Thursday and Friday quite what a sense of outrage and depth of concern. JQ spoke to John Bercow’s office on Friday and John Bercow on Saturday: he had already arranged to see Lord Adonis and John Bercow agreed to take to us this evening, about the impact what it means and where we go from here.
John Bercow’s speech:
Thank you for the introduction, and thank you to everyone involved in organising the meeting.
It is a testament to the strength of feeling on this subject, that on a wet, deeply inclement Saturday evening that you have chosen spontaneously and at short notice to be here. If you hold a meeting on a matter of great national or international importance, but no particular urgency, you will probably attract three people and a dog. If you hold a meeting on an issue which touches directly the lives, the quality of life and the financial circumstances of people who have chosen to live in our community you will get people turning up in their bucket loads, and that is what has happened, and I respect that.
Of course I wait to hear the range of opinions which will be expressed. Thank you Jeremy, and thank you for turning up. Jeremy emphasized that JB had had a meeting with the Secretary of State.
The secretary of State made an announcement about the proposed route on March 11th in the House of Lords and there was also one in the House of Commons. JB spoke to Lord Adonis before the announcement, and told him that JB would be chairing the statement in the House of Commons in his capacity as Speaker, but as a constituency MP he had the gravest and most persistent concerns about the outline route that had been chosen and the consequential impact upon the quality of life for his constituents. JB would want to engage with him and others on an ongoing basis, to try to secure the rethink that seems to be manifestly necessary if a calamitous error is not to be made and grievous damage in not to be suffered by residents of the Buckingham constituency.
Adonis readily agreed that they could meet and we met on Wednesday 17th March for approximately 15 minutes. Of course, nothing changed immediately as the result of a 15 minute meeting, but in describing some of the issues I would like to you the apparent readiness of governments to consider points of view expressed.
On the mega issue of whether there should be high speed railway, the argument has to be made by those who are seeking Parliamentary approval and public funds for the construction of such a scheme.
There are arguments for HSRL, and I won’t pretend there aren’t. There are commercial arguments and some people – certainly not in Buckingham – who would try to argue the thesis on environmental basis in terms of reducing car usage, by which argument I am wholly unpersuaded.
It is fair to put on the record what we know to be the case, which is that when you are talking about the London to Birmingham link, you are talking about a prospective expenditure o f between 15.8 billion pounds – that is more than £15,000 million plus – and 17.4 billion pounds.
The first point I simply want to put on the table, and on which I am interesting in hearing views: is that by any standard, by any criteria, by any yardstick, this is a phenomenal expenditure of public funds – at a time when the overwhelming focus of public debate in political terms in recent months has been on the necessity for retrenchment, on the requirement for hard decisions, on the need for economy, on the necessity of putting off things that might otherwise be done. It seems to me at any rate to sit uneasily with that dominating theme of political discussion, for there suddenly to be an announcement of a massive proposed expenditure, albeit over a substantial period, and I think it is reasonable for us to ask, is it worthwhile to contemplate such expenditure full stop and in particular to do so, when in relation to the London to Birmingham route, the construction of which has such palpable implications for our constituency, the time saving estimated to be involved in terms of journeys is of the order of – wait for it, ladies and gentlemen – of 21 minutes. (Interjection – “outrageous”) A 21 minute time saving and a prospective expenditure of up to 17,000 million pounds.
And I hope you will not accuse me of an excessive cynicism if I say in respect of all governments that that the estimated cost with which you start, is invariably very much on the low side and the likelihood is that the cost at the end would be significantly higher. Of course Andrew Adonis and his colleagues would argue that there are potential economic benefits to be gained, and it is up to him to argue that thesis, but what I would say to you today, from what I know as an inexpert commentator but as a passionate representative of this constituency, that it looks to me as though if we proceed as the government presently intends, for the residents of the Buckingham constituency, especially, but not only those directly impacted by the route, it will be all pain and no gain. And that is what worries me, and as representative of the constituency, it is that interest with which I am preoccupied.
The intention is to have a two phase consultation process, with local authorities, Members of Parliament for a period of months. And then a full scale public consultation from October of this year which is expected to run for 6 months. It is absolutely critical and axiomatic that everyone here who feels strongly, should be engaged on the most persistent, well-organised and meticulously argued basis. It will not suffice simply to say “we’re agin it, go away”.
But also I appeal to people here, both to demonstrate their support for the campaign against the link if that is what they wish to do, in terms of their numbers and the evidence of their written protest, which you can send to John Bercow.
But also I appeal to people, in this room and beyond, with expertise in relation to transport systems, construction, planning policy and financing of infrastructure projects. Please contribute that expertise for the benefit of whatever non partisan/cross-party/non political organisation is devised for the representation of the interests of the Buckingham constituency.
I would like to say some words about some very specific points of concerns, which I raised with the Secretary of State.
1) Profoundly unsatisfactory that the mitigation offered to the Chiltern-Aylesbury section in terms of cuttings and screenings – methods of vegetation etc which can be used to minimise the impact – has not been offered to the Aylesbury-Brackley section. I see no Earthly reason whatsoever why the people in this constituency who stand to be adversely affected by this proposal – for which they didn’t ask , but for which they will be obliged through their taxes to pay – to be denied a comparable protection to that which is being offered to another section of the line. I have a sense that people will feel deeply wounded and angst-ridden that that protection is not currently being offered.
2) There is an obvious and predictable implication in terms of noise pollution for our area, and looking at the government’s announcements thus far, it is not apparent to me that any significant thought has been given to mitigation of or minimisation of that noise impact. If there are trains travelling at up to 250mph it is incontrovertible that there will be a substantial noise impact. At the very least, if the government were to continue with a doubtful project and a misguided route, they have a responsibility to suggest how, with the use of modern technology that is available to them and the huge resources that they plan to deploy, how they would minimise that noise impact.
3) Many residents have already said to me, by way of reinforcement of my “all pain, no gain”, that is a slap in the face that no station on the line is being offered to our area. This is a mega project which may or may not have significant national benefit, the costs of which are astronomical, but there is no designated intended benefit to our area in terms of a presence on the line. There is talk of there being a storage depot which might involve a relatively small number of jobs. JB was not impressed.
In addition, there is a massive issue of property blight.
There are two central points here with which we shall have to get to grips. One is the Exceptional hardship scheme for which there are parallels, on outline of which the government has issued but on which it is consulting for a lamentably short period until the middle of May. This scheme is intended to cover only people directly on the route and will be affected and whose circumstances are so parlous that they are required to up sticks sooner rather than later: compensation is a maximum of 85% of the value of the property.
My rejoinder is: People haven’t asked for this, they don’t want it, and if they have to move from a community in which they voluntarily choose to live, why should the maximum compensation be only up to 85% the value of property, when it could be substantially greater than that.
Of course argument is about cost. Just as the argument about siteing a station in the constituency is subject to the counter argument from the secretary of State and the prospective operator of the project that it would reduce the commercial attractiveness of the project. To which the answer from me, ladies and gentlemen, is that there is a balance in these matters and I am less bothered about the commercial gain of the project and more concerned about the protection of the interests of local residents and the minimisation of your disruption or cost.
Exceptional hardship scheme is inadequate as it stands and it is up to people to make representations for something better.
I put that point to Lord Adonis and he says he “is open to what people have to say”. In my experience, all governments will try to set the prospective costs that they will incur for alleviation as low as they can. But they have to be open to counter arguments, they will have to open to pressure and they will have to be open to public representation.
The other element which is relevant is the statutory protection scheme will kick in only at the point at which the route is agreed, but a statutory protection scheme is considerably far off and something is needed something much sooner.
Related to all of this is a concern that there should be a public consultation process which is not a question of simply patting people on the head, saying they can have their say, and doing what they were going to do anyway. This public consultation must be a genuine debate and exchange between different people expressing their points of view, voicing their concerns, calling either for a wholly new route or for mitigation measures on a more substantial scale.
It is absolutely essential that that consultation process is as long as necessary, and as inclusive and accessible as will be required to satisfy the people of my constituency: first that they have been heard, and secondly that they have been heeded.
Only these will satisfy John Bercow.
JB asked Lord Adonis to make a commitment that if he is still secretary of state for transport later this year that he will do us the courtesy of coming to the constituency and addressing a public meeting like JB is now, at which your voices will be heard– he agreed at once.
He also agreed to meet JB again, with others of the constituency: my view is that if we get a serious, effective, well-oiled machine of organised campaigning, we will be able to see the secretary of state, whether Adonis or a Labour replacement.
JB will speak to the Theresa Villiers, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport (sp?) who is very likely to be Secretary of State if the Conservatives are elected, and ask her for the same pledge.
I think it important that there should be a genuine engagement
I want to conclude my remarks by saying: You all are among the people who pay his salary.
I have been privileged to serve us since 1997. I deal with hundreds of letters and emails every week.
There is no issue he cannot raise, no argument he cannot make, no minister I cannot meet on your behalf. There has been a bit of confusion since I was elected Speaker as to whether he can take up constituent’s concerns.
I can, and I do, and I am doing so, week in, week out, month in, month out on just the same basis that I did in the past.
There are two differences.
It is true that I can’t speak in debates, but the second difference is that I get quicker replies from ministers then I ever did before.
Ministers come to Speaker’s House to meet with JB and his constituents.
The office I hold is important, and precisely in recognition of the centrality of the office and of the tradition that the Speaker does not speak in debates, so he has unparalled access to ministers.
If anybody refers to impartiality, I say it’s nonsense on stilts: it has no political or intellectual or historical credibility whatsoever.
PS During questions afterwards, John Bercow appealed for as many people as possible to write to him before the Easter recess. He will pass them all on to ministers, and said a letter is more effective then petitions.