Debate in House of Lords: speech by Lord Truscott

Transport: HS2 – Question for Short Debate – Tuesday 26th February 2013
7.40 pm

Asked By Lord Truscott

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their latest assessment of the cost/benefit ratio, and environmental and social impact, of the HS2 scheme.

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I thank the Government Whips’ Office for its assistance in tabling this short debate. I also thank noble Lords and the Minister in advance for their participation. Your Lordships’ House last debated the high-speed rail scheme, HS2, last July and I will not repeat all the excellent points made then by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and other noble Lords.

I have been following this debate with interest for some time and I have read all the contributions made in your Lordships’ House and the other place, together with all the relevant documents. I came to the subject with no axe to grind. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I see in his place this evening, said in the debate last July that he was not biased in his pro-HS2 decision as Secretary of State for Transport. That is quite right and neither am I biased in my views. Since I gave my S-class Mercedes to my plumber last summer, making him the happiest plumber on earth, I have become totally dependent on public transport, in particular the marvellous Great Western Railway to reach my home in Bath.

As a neo-Keynesian, I also believe in supporting large infrastructure projects when they are in the national interest. They can create jobs and boost the economy. In my former role as UK Energy Minister, I understood well enough that large projects, badly needed by society as a whole, can have an adverse environmental impact. We are a densely populated island. Demographic pressures are growing, yet we all want to see improvements in our standard of living and quality of life. Yet, my Lords, I fear that with HS2 we are in danger of developing a huge and costly white elephant, with an ill-thought-out business case, social disruption and a catastrophic environmental impact.

As I said, we are a small island; we are not even the size of France, Germany, Japan or China, all of which have high-speed rail networks. Carbon neutral at best, HS2 will do nothing to enable our country to meet its carbon reduction obligations. Since the 1930s the UK has lost 50% of its ancient woodland which now accounts for just over 2% of total woodland. When our ancient woods are gone, they are gone for ever and we cannot afford to lose any more. Future generations will not thank us for such wanton destruction for the sake of 30 minutes less travelling time to Birmingham. As the Independent on Sundaypointed out, HS2 threatens 350 unique habitats, 50 irreplaceable ancient woods, 30 river corridors, 24 sites of special scientific interest and hundreds of other important areas. Threatened species include the stag beetle, purple hairstreak butterfly, great crested newt—where is Ken Livingstone when you need him?—slow worm, black redstart, long-eared owl, Daubenton’s bat and the badger.

We are told that the HS2 business case is sound—it will deliver much needed capacity, including freight, connectivity at record speed and it is in the national interest. That is wrong, wrong and wrong again. The business case is evaporating before our eyes. Instead of a benefit to cost ratio of £2 for every £1 invested, when you strip out the Department for Transport’s dodgy calculations, it is just 40p for every £1 invested, and it will cost every household in the country over £1,000. The Department for Transport’s record in accurate forecasting is poor—witness the west coast main line franchise fiasco or HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, where again its forecasts were wildly inaccurate.

Improvements to the existing infrastructure, such as working on pinch points within current transport corridors, would be a fraction of the cost—some £2 billion compared with £33 billion and rising—without the widespread disruption predicted by a scaremongering Department for Transport. Alternative proposals to upgrade existing lines provide a benefit to cost ratio of over 5:1. This can be achieved by rolling stock reconfiguration, operation of longer trains and targeted infrastructure investment to clear selected bottlenecks, enabling increased frequency.

I can see why some northern cities welcome HS2 as the best deal on offer. However, the fact is that HS2 will benefit London and connectivity between northern cities can be better improved by east-west connections over the Pennines and other inter-city improvements, rather than focusing on a north-south line to London. Most jobs and benefits will flow to London, as has been the case with Paris and Madrid with their high-speed rail networks. If I am not misquoting him, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham, has rightly said that HS2 will turn Birmingham into a dormitory town for London. Meanwhile, hard-pressed commuters in the Home Counties, the south-east, south-west and East Anglia despite severe overcrowding will have all the costs but none of the benefits of HS2.

Nor do I think that Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield will be so keen when they are asked to cough up some of the £26 billion subsidy that HS2 requires or to pay the premium fares demanded of their citizens. Besides, has anyone told the Department for Transport that the north does not stop at Manchester? Liverpool and Newcastle have clearly been sidelined, let alone Scotland. Incidentally, I am grateful to the Minister for his prompt and timely replies to my Written Questions on HS2. The responses revealed that the Department for Transport has no idea how much the line would cost to expand to Scotland; nor does it have any contingency plans for Heathrow should another airport take its place as the UK’s hub.

Compensation is another issue. The Secretary of State for Transport in the other place said on 28 January last that he understood that HS2 would be “inconvenient” for some people. It can be argued that being unable to sell one’s house is more than a trifle inconvenient, quite apart from the noise and other impact of HS2 for up to 500 metres either side of the line for hundreds of miles, which will involve clearing thousands of acres of land and property. HS2 estimates that for every 100 metres of track it needs around 2.5 acres, yet just 2% of those affected will be compensated.

I hope that in his response the Minister will flesh out how the Government will keep their oft-quoted promise to compensate properly those affected. I can see the attraction for the Government of announcing a massive infrastructure programme, unparalleled in peacetime, which will not involve significant expenditure until 2017-18 and not be implemented for 20 years, when Ministers will have long moved on. It has all the benefits of giving the impression of action, while doing nothing to alleviate current problems and bottlenecks on the railway network, let alone boost the economy. If the Government really want to spend such an absurd amount of money, there are other projects which they may want to consider; for example, sorting out the nation’s airport capacity.

Finally, I know the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will be concerned that the house of his late grandfather, Clement Attlee, in Prestwood, near Great Missenden, is imperilled by HS2. Will he do us all a favour, have a change of heart on HS2 and save the old family home?

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