By Jonathan Isaby
The new MP for Wycombe, Steve Baker, secured a one-and-a-half hour adjournment debate in Westminster Hall yesterday on a topic which is of particular interest to his constituents, namely the High Speed 2 Rail link which looks set to run through Buckinghamshire, and set out his opposition to the scheme thus:
"The Chilterns AONB is a rare, precious landscape benefiting not just those who live there but the millions who visit every year from across the country, particularly, due to its proximity, from London. I have lived adjacent to the AONB for almost three years and can confirm that it is one of Britain's most beautiful and ecologically rich landscapes. The preferred route of HS 2 crosses the AONB at its widest point, in contradiction to the policy followed for HS 1. In Kent, the route of HS 1 was amended to avoid the North Downs AONB. By contrast, HS 2 appears to have been deliberately routed through the least spoilt, widest part of the Chilterns… Some 59 different protected species have been recorded within 1 km of the route of HS 2. The recommended route involves tunnelling directly through an aquifer, risking reducing the water table and exacerbating low flow in the Chess and Misbourne. It also risks possible contamination of the ground water. The environmental impact of the recommended route of HS 2 would be enormous. I am therefore calling for an official environmental impact assessment of the preferred route well in advance of the planned consultation, so that interested parties can fully digest its findings."
"There is no benefit to Buckinghamshire from accepting high-speed rail. The project would have to be bullied through against the well-grounded wishes of those affected, causing not just the environmental damage described but also infringing the property rights of large numbers of people. Doing so would thoroughly undermine the Government's commitment to increasing people's power over their own lives. From Buckinghamshire's perspective, the answer to whether HS 2 should run across the county is, of course, a resounding no. Buckinghamshire people are bound to object to a programme that would merely blight our beautiful county and trespass on local people's businesses and the quiet enjoyment of their homes. I find myself asking, "Should any area of the country be forced to accept high-speed rail?"
"If it is not true that high-speed rail is in the national interest, and if such a project will offer only marginal and uncertain benefits at vast expense, it would be in no one's interest. I am delighted that the Government wish to ensure the prosperity of the whole nation, but it has not been demonstrated that HS 2 will deliver that. To justify such a grievous impact on the people and landscape of Buckinghamshire-and indeed along the entire length of the route, wherever it is located-the Government must place the economic and environmental case for the programme beyond all doubt. I do not believe they have yet done so."
"High-speed rail is not commercially viable, so the expense is justified with a wider cost-benefit analysis. That analysis relies on assumptions, including excessive demand, generous benefits and a flawed analysis of the alternatives. I shall only touch on each point today, but I am sure that campaigners will furnish us with full details during the course of the inquiry."
"It is a myth that the UK lacks a fast national railway network; we have had one for a long time. We have routes capable of 125 mph, with quicker rail journey times between the capital and the five largest cities than in other major western European countries. For instance, the average journey time in the UK is 145 minutes. It is 151 minutes in Spain, 184 in Italy, 221 in France and 244 in Germany. In short, it appears that for £2 billion, the Government could have a complete, low-risk but unglamorous solution to the problem of rail capacity, and rather sooner than HS 2 could be delivered. Therefore, I am not convinced that £30 billion-or more-of taxpayers' money would be wisely risked on HS 2."
Transport select committee member and Buckinghamshire MP Iain Stewart agreed that there is "a strong case" for an additional north-south strategic high speed rail route, but that he was "far from convinced that the detail of the proposed route is correct":
"We run the risk of an enormous and costly error in this country if we do not get the details right, which is why I warmly welcome the recent assurance by the Secretary of State and the Minister that the inquiry into High Speed 2 will examine both the strategic case and the specifics of the proposed route. Frankly, we get one shot at making the project work and, vitally, if it is to succeed, it must be done on the strongest evidence and commanding broad-based support in the country".
He said that there was a need to upgrade the classic existing rail routes and plan for the long term with High Speed 2, but had another idea:
"Why does High Speed 2 not connect with HS1? It is crazy not to connect them, in my view. I had a meeting with the chief executive of Crossrail recently, and I asked him, "Has anyone considered using Crossrail as a link between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2?" He said, "You're the first person who's ever proposed that to me." Such a link may not be the answer, but it is surely the sort of issue that we should look at as we consider a multi billion pound scheme over many years. Has High Speed 2 been considered in the context of broader UK aviation policy? Should we not look at connecting Birmingham airport, Heathrow and other airports in the midlands and the south as part of our total transport policy?"
"The route will have a potentially devastating impact on my constituency of North Warwickshire. We face the prospect that the line as it runs in to Birmingham from the main line will branch off in my constituency, causing a huge amount of devastation to the villages of Gilson and Water Orton. The main line will continue further north, causing severe impact on the town of Coleshill and the village of Middleton. Potentially even more worrying, if the Y-shaped route happens, we might end up with the junction in my constituency, probably tripling the amount of blight and devastation in North Warwickshire. We do not know exactly where the Y-shaped junction is going to be, but there is a great deal of concern throughout my constituency. If the Y-shaped junction does end up in my constituency, it will probably be the single most affected in the country as a result of the route."
He was keen that the Government looks at the operation of the exceptional hardship scheme for those whose property may be affected by its proximity to the route.
"People understand that Governments need to make difficult decisions such as this, but they have to make them within a framework that is open, transparent and understandable. If it looks as though decisions are being made in a murky way, that completely undermines what the Government are trying to do. By definition, people applying under the exceptional hardship scheme are going through a difficult time. I urge the Minister to look at how it is working and to point out to the panel that it is not there to be a hard-nosed gatekeeper, but to implement a clear and transparent process in a neutral and even-handed way."
"I strongly believe that careful mitigation measures can eliminate the most intrusive local impacts of high-speed rail. Modern engineering techniques give us an expanding range of ways to use sensitive design to make transport infrastructure easier to live with and less intrusive; a number of Members have referred to the example of High Speed 1, where that mitigation work has been done with some success in many areas.
"I believe that it is possible to find a solution that is balanced and fair; that generates the significant economic benefits of high-speed rail for the country as a whole, and that is fair to the local communities that are directly affected by whatever line of route is ultimately chosen. Hopefully, this debate will take us closer to finding a solution and choosing that route.
"We intend the consultation to be inclusive, wide-ranging and comprehensive, providing a range of opportunities for Members and their constituents to go through these kinds of concerns about the impact on landscapes and communities. Our consultation is designed to run for about five months, which is longer than the statutory minimum. We take this process very seriously, because we know the gravity of the concern that is felt in some communities."