Hansard 13 Oct 2011 : Column 556
High Speed 2
Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Many people are using public transport more these days, particularly the railways, despite the extortionate fares that train operating companies extract from customers for the cheap but not very cheerful service they usually get, particularly on commuter lines. I very much welcome the increased use of public transport, because it reduces carbon emissions and is generally better for the environment.
Two acts of monumental folly have affected the railway industry in the past 50 years. The first was the decision in the early 1960s by the Conservative Government of the day to let Dr Beeching butcher Britain’s network of branch lines, which had linked communities across the country. The second was the decision by another Conservative Government to privatise the railways in the early ’90s, a decision that even the arch-privatiser, Mrs Thatcher, had the good sense not to pursue. Of course, this has meant that the taxpayer has been paying vastly more in subsidy to train operating companies and to the network than was ever paid pro rata to British Rail. I hope that the coalition and the Minister will not, over this decision, make it three monumental follies in a row.
The coalition proposes that we spend £32 billion by 2026 on a new rail project from London to Birmingham, which then goes on to Leeds and Manchester by 2032, allegedly saving 30 minutes’ travelling time from Birmingham and 50 minutes from Manchester. The fact that business people invariably travel first class and can use their computers and communications networks while travelling, while others will remain in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester and hold meetings using video conferencing facilities, is dismissed by the vested interest groups, which see a massive tranche of public money that they would like to access.
At a time when ordinary people are facing massive reductions in their living standards, living under threat of losing their jobs and watching their community services such as libraries, Sure Start centres and centres for elderly people being axed, we are prepared to commit £17 billion, the estimated cost of the line from London to Birmingham, in order to get business people from Birmingham to London 30 minutes sooner—always assuming that there are no high-speed leaves on the line and the high-speed signalling equipment actually works.
No wonder an online survey by the Birmingham Post showedthat 75% of respondents were against the project.
What other inflated claims are made for the project? It is said that it will help to diminish regional inequalities and promote growth, but there is no evidence of that. If we look at what has happened in Japan, Spain and France, we find that the high-speed connections there have benefited the hub much more than the outer communities.
What about the effect of the project on towns and cities that High Speed 2 will bypass? The deputy leader of Coventry city council says that the plans for High Speed 2 send a clear message that
Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) said about Birmingham, I suggest that that might not be a bad idea.
Where high-speed trains do work is in countries with large land mass, but in other, smaller countries they take resources from humbler but more needed schemes, such as the upgrading of existing networks, signalling and infrastructure. Unfortunately, however, we all know as politicians that unveiling a new signal box tends to appeal less than inaugurating a futuristic new service. The project’s other exaggerated claims have already been dealt with.
Hugh Bayley: Does my hon. Friend realise that the project is not a zero-sum game? As in any business, if one invests in a new product, one gets new customers and generates economic growth. We need investment in the current network, for sure, but that is no reason not to go ahead with High Speed 2.
Mr Godsiff: I am all in favour of infrastructure investment, but I can think of a whole host of infrastructure investment on which £32 billion could be spent in my constituency, my hon. Friend’s constituency and many other constituencies. This project is not good value for money, and it has not been thought through.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Surely it is a zero-sum game, as the hon. Gentleman said earlier, because, at a time when we in constituencies that are not directly affected by this railway project are nevertheless having to fight, for example, to save hospitals from closure due to cuts, it seems sheer madness to look at this level of investment instead of at saving our services.
Putting aside my views on the subject, I shall share with the House the views of a Manchester-based businessman who came to London on Tuesday for a meeting of the Surface Engineering Association, an excellent organisation that looks after the interests of companies operating in that segment of manufacturing industry. I asked him how long it had taken to travel down to London that day, and he said “Two hours, eight minutes.” He asked why I wanted to know and I told him about the upcoming debate on High Speed 2. He responded that getting to London from Manchester 50 minutes quicker did not really bother him because he used train time to work on his computer and to make calls. He ventured the opinion that if the Government had that sort of money to spend, they should do something about the bottlenecks on the M6, as well as improving the transport infrastructure in many of our cities.
Those views are similar to the majority of those expressed to me by business people in my constituency. Not one business person has come to me and said, “Thirty minutes is going to make the difference between my company succeeding or not.” It is a fallacy to believe otherwise. However, over the years, plenty of constituents have come to me and said that there should be better public transport facilities within Birmingham—an underground system such as the one in London, a tram system such as those that operate in European cites, improved bus services, or new or reopened train lines and stations within and around the city. Those are the types of improvements that the people of Birmingham want, not a vastly expensive link between London and Birmingham.
People have expressed a great deal of concern about the damage that this will cause in the Chilterns and Warwickshire. The impression has been given that only people who live there are concerned about those areas. In fact, many people living in Birmingham travel to the countryside, especially elderly people in my constituency who have enjoyed the benefits of the free or concessionary fares introduced by the Labour Government. They
enjoy the countryside; they are certainly not part of the “carpet the countryside with concrete” brigade, and neither am I.
We have had many vanity projects in this country that have been a disaster. I hope the Minister will think again about this project, because I believe that if it goes ahead, it will be a disaster