Today, (Friday 23rd January), MPs debated the concept of having a national referendum on the funding of HS2, in which only two MPs, the Minister and Shadow Minister for Transport, John Hayes and Lilian Greenwood were willing to stand up say HS2 is a good idea.
Whilst the HS2 Referendum Bill was proposed at the start of this session of Parliament, the fact it had ended up timetabled for today meant it could not possibly get through the system before the General Election without Government support, so after the debate Christchurch MP Christopher Chope withdrew the Bill, promising to bring it back after the election.
Mr Chope brought the debate because he does not believe HS2 is the best use of £50bn of taxpayers money, pointing to a report from the New Economics Foundation which detailed better ways to spend what was at the time estimated to be the £33bn cost of HS2. There was a lot of reference to the Public Accounts Committee report last week, when concluded they were sceptical that HS2 would deliver value for money, with Dominic Grieve MP pointing out that HS2 was originally meant to cost £16bn, and now the price tag is at £50bn.
Mr Grieve pointed out that the advantage of holding a referendum would be that it would mean information which HS2 Ltd have been unwilling to release would have to be forthcoming. Cheryl Gillan MP pointed to the reports from the Major Projects Authority which rated HS2 at ‘amber-red’, saying that at the very least these reports should be released to the Select Committee currently hearing petitions on HS2. She also pointed out the ‘hidden nasty’ in the hS2 business case, which calls for over eight billion pounds worth of cuts to existing rail services.
Frank Dobson MP criticised HS2 of being “Amateurish” and said that HS2 was unpopular in every part of the country, before reading out polling statistics which proved his point and saying there was a need for a referendum because “Parliament isn’t doing its’ job properly .Maybe people taking part in a referendum will do their job properly”, before suggesting that “If there were secret ballots on HS2 in the cabinet and the shadow cabinet, they’d probably come out 80% against”
Dan Byles, MP for North Warwickshire criticised the economic analysis used to justify HS2 as being “Very simplistic”, citing that when the costs went up to £50bn, economic benefits were invented but not justified to prop up the benefit cost ratio, and said there is a “Woeful lack of sophistication of economic analysis to demonstrate HS2 will be any good” and that “Anyone who deals with HS2 Ltd knows they are a terrible, terrible organisation to have to deal with.”
After an hour and a half of debate, Shadow Transport Minister Lilian Greenwood was the first MP to speak up for HS2, insisting that the costs were being kept under control, but she would not be pressed on what price would be too much for Labour, simply reiterating that there will be “No blank cheque”.
Finally, Transport Minister John Hayes came on who at times seemed liked he was auditioning for Hamlet, saying it was “Bold and Courageous” not to have a referendum on HS2. Chope, Byles and Dobson all took the opportunity to beat him down, with the later charitably saying: “I feel the right honourable gentleman has been very badly briefed”. The nearest Hayes could come to defending HS2 was saying that rebuilding the Euston Arch would be a “Glorious Thing” which would send a “Symbolic Message” to the country that HS2 is a good idea, and that the new station, for which there are no current plans would be “Neo-Classical Building”.
Hayes then said he had an “Exciting announcement” to make about the environmental impact of HS2, which turned out to be that he had ordered HS2 Ltd to investigate the possibility of moving a 250 year old pear tree in Cubbington. He finished off by saying that HS2 would be “The greatest project the world has ever seen.”
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin responded:
“It is a shame that this Bill was timetabled so close to the election, meaning there was no chance of it getting through in time, but it is great news that Mr Chope intends to bring it back after the election, as a referendum would as he said give the main parties a face-saving get-out clause on HS2, because it is clear the public do not want it and most certainly do not want to pay for it.”
“We were very pleased with the knowledge of the MPs who spoke against HS2, who all had common themes, that HS2 Ltd are incompetent and only release information about the project when it has been dragged out of them. In contrast, the response from Government was laughable. The best argument for HS2 that John Hayes could come up with was that it would mean rebuilding the Euston Arch, which would be a glorious thing that would persuade the country that HS2 is a good idea. If that is the level that the argument for HS2 has sunk to, then HS2 is sunk.”
Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2, added
“It is no surprise that the HS2 referendum bill was withdrawn due to lack of support for the committee stage from the Government, which would have been needed to get it through before the election. In a debate that lasted over two and a half hours, it was notable that there were only two speakers in favour of HS2, and they were the government minister and the shadow minister. The Transport minister John Hayes, claimed it was a bold and courageous move to refuse to give ordinary voters a chance to say whether they want to pay for HS2. But really it’s a sign that the government are running scared that when people look at the humongous costs of HS2, people will say we don’t want to pay for it.”
“In particular, with respect to Euston, it was clear that Hayes was making things up on the spot. He hasn’t got a budget. And he was obviously unaware of all the problems that designers have had with Euston, meaning that the third set of plans were scrapped before they were made public. While it might be that the appropriate design for Euston might be neoclassical architectural, important design decisions like that shouldn’t be made by a government minister pontificating in the House of Commons. When the main justification he gave for the £50bn HS2 is to re-instate the Euston Arch, which is estimated to cost about £10 million, you have to wonder how desperate the government are getting.”