Jeremy’s speech during the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill

Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

I rise to oppose the Second Reading today for reasons very similar to those given by my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Stone (Sir William Cash). I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield—I am not at all opposed to additional rail capacity, or indeed to relatively high-speed rail capacity. The problem with the Bill before us now is that it is capable of pretty much no amendment. Yes, there can be very small adjustments made, but none of them would do anything for my constituents who are hugely affected by this development.

First, I want to talk about why the Bill, and indeed the whole project, is wrong in principle; secondly, about the specific problems that we face in the Stafford constituency; and thirdly about some suggestions for how those problems might be ameliorated. We do not need a 400 km an hour line in the United Kingdom, with the little connectivity that these proposals give us. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has said, the line is forced to go so straight that it does not take the most appropriate and sensitive route. A line of 250 km to 300 km an hour would have been easily adequate. In fact, it is very unlikely that the trains will ever reach anything more than that.

In my constituency, the line seems to head straight for the villages, and not for the open countryside. It affects four villages directly, and it is adjacent to a fifth. I would welcome any hon. Member who wants to come for a visit to note the impact on this part of the world—in Staffordshire and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. Lots of alternatives have been put forward. We have already heard about the Arup alternative. There is also the High Speed UK alternative, which provides much better connectivity between 32 prominent cities of the UK. I have looked at it in some detail. I am sure that holes can be picked in it, but those holes will be considerably smaller than the ones that can be picked in the proposals that are before us now. This is the wrong solution to a problem that we undoubtedly have. Just before people say that this is simply a nimby attitude, I point out that both my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and I have supported an extremely large rail project in our constituencies, which came at some inconvenience to our constituents, but nevertheless we saw the benefit of it. That was the Norton Bridge junction, which has increased speeds on that line, and increased capacity on the west coast main line. Indeed, before I was elected, I supported the proposal of the previous Government on the Stafford bypass, which also had an impact on my constituency.

Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I was in Committee upstairs, and came down particularly to hear the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He knows that I passionately oppose HS2. I applaud his opposition, and would love to make the visit to his constituency to see the degradation, because £100 billion of expenditure should go not on this, but on a decent railway service across the north of England.

Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is welcome to visit my constituency; we will make an arrangement. He will see the beautiful countryside of the upper Trent Valley, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone would also show him across Swynnerton Park and up towards Madeley, so that he can see the effect of the line on those areas.

The business case is another reason I believe this is the wrong project. We have heard from other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Mr Seely, that the business case is not particularly compelling. In fact, our former colleague and former Chair of the Treasury Committee, Andrew Tyrie, said that HS2

“has the weakest economic case of all projects” within the infrastructure programme. As has been mentioned, there is a hole in the business case. That is, there is no business case that I can see for the continuation of the existing west coast main line without the revenue from the high-speed services that currently use it and generate most of its revenue. How will that line be maintained? Will it be maintained purely with the revenue from local and regional services, on which prices can be extremely low? Will that generate enough revenue? Alternatively, will it be maintained using revenue from freight services? I do not know, but there is not a business case. I have asked for it and it has not been provided. I urge the Government—particularly if they are about to put out to tender for the package of HS2 and the west coast main line—to insist that we have a proper business case for the entire package, not simply for HS2.

Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that this has all the hallmarks of a vanity project and that that is why there is not a proper business case? To a certain extent, that answers his question.

Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

Well, I am not sure that it is a vanity project because, if constructed, it certainly will bring benefits to the country, although probably at much more expense than it should and at a huge cost to our constituents. When I challenged a very senior person who has been involved in this project in the past, they said, “Well, actually, it’s gone too far. We wouldn’t have started it here but we have gone too far.” The west coast main line was started, I think, in the 1850s—possibly even earlier—so this project will last for 200 years. What is a few years to get this right and to put it in the right place? I shall return to that point.

On the problems, let me start with the problems for people because people are the most important. I get pretty frustrated when HS2 staff come around to count bats. Yes, bats have importance, but my constituents are more important. HS2 is prepared to spend an awful lot of time and money counting bats and various other things, but not talking to my constituents. I have constituents who have waited for a visit for a year. These constituents have dairy farms, and HS2 wants to take 100 acres away from their farm, which would make a dairy farm unviable. Only last week, a constituent of mine suddenly received a letter from HS2 indicating that his entire property was needed, when it had previously only needed a very small part. I have a strong objection to the uncertainty and inefficiency with which my constituents have been handled. That is not to criticise every single employee of HS2. I have met some extremely good ones. There have been some who I would praise for their work, but there have been others who, I am afraid, have fallen short.

Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend that bats have no importance whatever, but I do agree with him that people are important. He may actually experience what I experienced in my constituency, whereby HS2 implied and said that it was going to take a property and then decided that it was not going to take it, which can also have severe implications for businesses affected in that fashion.

Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

I entirely agree. I apologise if I gave the impression that I do not care about bats at all, but I care about my constituents a little bit more. There are also the issues of the slow process, the lack of engagement, totally unnecessary arguments over valuations and a lack of knowledge. For example, one constituent of mine was not aware of what was going on. He sold the property after the line was announced and made a huge loss, but was then unable to claim for that loss because he was told that he should have gone through the process. This elderly gentleman was basically robbed of tens of thousands of pounds simply because he did not quite understand the system. Will the Minister see whether there is some way that we can get compensation for my constituent, who deserves it? I have constituents, an elderly couple, whose property is going to be boxed in by the works on HS2—literally boxed in. Yet, as things stand, they are not going to be allowed to sell their house to HS2, for reasons I fail to understand.

Then there is the impact on communities and the environment. The line runs adjacent to Great Haywood. It goes through Ingestre, Hopton, Marston and Yarlet. These are mainly old and ancient villages with strong communities. Hopton has lost a lot of its population already because people have moved out. There is not the community there that there was, because HS2, although it is renting out to people some of the properties that have been sold to it, it is not doing so quickly. Naturally, the people who are coming in, perhaps for the short term, are not able to join in the community as much as others would.

Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does my hon. Friend recall the impact that this will also have on Yarlet School, which is a very serious problem for those who have this fantastically good school and the facilities that go with it?

Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

I do indeed. The line goes pretty much straight through Yarlet School, and not only that but through Yarlet wood, which is one of our ancient woodlands. I think it is even noted in the Domesday Book, so it is the best part of 1,000 years old.

Another very important part of Staffordshire life that the line goes straight through, or almost straight through, is Staffordshire showground, which hosts not just the county show but hundreds of other events every year, with probably the best part of 300,000 or 400,000 people attending. It is a very important employer and economic entity within my constituency.

The line goes very close to Shugborough. The irony of this is that when the west coast main line was put through Shugborough in the 19th century, the Earl of Lichfield persuaded the railway company to build a cut-and-cover tunnel through Shugborough, which one still sees when going on the main line up to Liverpool. We have been unable to persuade HS2 to provide such tunnelling for my constituents. Clearly, where the railways would listen to the Earl of Lichfield 150 years ago and more, they do not listen to the ordinary people today who would like to have some protection from this line. The line also goes pretty much straight through the beautiful Ingestre and Tixall parklands and landscapes.

The next issue is transport infrastructure. The line cuts straight across several major roads, including the A51, the A518, the A34 and the M6, and goes over the west coast main line. As far as I can see, HS2 and Highways England do not seem to have a plan on how to manage the inevitable disruption to local, regional, and indeed national transport that is going to be caused. I hope they do have one, because the M6 must be, if not the busiest motorway in Europe, then one of the busiest, and the A34 is a kind of relief road for the M6. If both of those are going to be disrupted, particularly if it happens at the same time, the consequences for the regional and national economy, right up to Scotland, will be quite substantial.

Another problem is connectivity after HS2. Clearly, connectivity from Stafford will be better. There will be a faster journey from Stafford to London than at present. It is already an extremely good and fast journey—nobody has complained to me about it in the past—and it will, I admit, be a few minutes faster. Northbound, we are really concerned about connectivity, because we understand that the trains through Stafford and Stoke will end at Macclesfield. I have nothing against Macclesfield; in fact, it is a wonderful town. However, most of the time my constituents tend to prefer to go further to Manchester and Liverpool rather than to stop at Macclesfield. As I say, I have nothing against Macclesfield.

The next problem is the impact on businesses. Last week, I heard from a business that received, out of the blue, a letter saying, “We want all your land.” This business employs a large number of people in a rural area; it is possibly the biggest employer in that area. Yet suddenly, with literally no notice, we are suddenly told that HS2 needs the entire plot that it is working from, without any alternative.

Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I rarely agree with Sir William Cash, but I do in this case, about this being a vanity project. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is not really about connectivity or helping local industry? As he says, it will damage local industry. The French experience already shows that it does not liberate and rejuvenate the provincial cities and towns. It actually drains even more power and influence down to London and the metropolitan area around the south-east.

Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

I largely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I fear that that will be the case unless, as speakers both in favour and against have said, connectivity is taken much more seriously. I urge Ministers to look at the proposals of High Speed UK, even if they do not like those proposals, because it has some extremely important points to make about connectivity for other major cities in the UK.

If the line goes ahead—it seems there is a majority in the House at the moment for it, but that may change— I would like to make some proposals. First, for my constituents and my colleagues’ constituents, we must employ full-time sympathetic and responsive liaison officers who work together with businesses and constituents to ensure that problems are dealt with quickly, efficiently and compassionately. We must also give additional support to local health services. Quite a large number of my constituents have found this a very difficult time and have needed additional support, particularly with their mental health, and local surgeries have not necessarily had the resources to provide that.

It is very important that local people see that there are local jobs in this, and that people are not just brought in. Obviously we need the right skills, but as far as possible, local businesses and local people must be employed.

On the issue of mitigation, I urge the Minister, who I welcome to her position and congratulate on her appointment, to look at more tunnelling, particularly in the area of the Staffordshire showground, Hopton, Marston and Yarlet. I think it is possible. A green tunnel was proposed for Hopton, but it was removed on spurious grounds, or at least grounds that could have been overcome.

I ask the Minister to ensure that we have full planning well in advance for local, regional and national transport, including additional roads. I suggest a link between the A34 and junction 13, just as we have a link between the A34 and junctions 14 and 15. The very long viaduct at Great Haywood must be of outstanding design and faced with traditional stone or brick. I also suggest that the bridge constructed over the M6 for the railway or at least the supports for it should be put in place when the M6 is widened between junctions 13 and 15, rather than having to close the motorway for two separate civil works.

In conclusion, I would rather the Government paused, rethought and built for the whole country, with much better connectivity than this proposal gives us. If this goes ahead, at least for the time being, I ask that all the mitigations that my colleagues and I have put forward be taken seriously, because to date, they have not been.