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MPs reject calls for HS2 rail plans to be halted

MPs reject calls for HS2 rail plans to be halted

 
Artist's impression of an HS2 train on the Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct The HS2 link between London, the Midlands and the north of England is expected to cost £42.6bn

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MPs have rejected calls for the proposed HS2 rail link between London and the West Midlands to be scrapped, despite a Tory rebellion.

MPs threw out a proposal by ex-minister Cheryl Gillan for the plan to be halted by 451 votes to 50, a majority of 401.

Transport Minister Robert Goodwill said it was an "important step" in taking the controversial project forward.

A total of 34 Tories voted against the government, while a total of 46 Tories missed the vote or abstained.

Thirty-two Conservatives backed Mrs Gillan's amendment, while one - James Gray - acted as a teller for the rebels.

After rejecting Ms Gillan's amendment, MPs approved the general principles of the bill in a second vote by 452 to 41 votes, a majority of 411.

Twenty-four of the rebel Tories voted against the government again this time, as did two other Tories, John Redwood and Sir Richard Shepherd.

Last June, 21 Conservative backbenchers opposed the government in a Commons vote laying the groundwork for HS2 and the size of the rebellion was expected to be larger on Monday.

The High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill 2013-14, which would authorise the first phase of the multi-billion project, cleared its first parliamentary hurdle when it was given a second reading by MPs.

The proposed legislation would:

  • Grant the powers required to construct and operate phase one of HS2, between London and the West Midlands
  • Because of its complexity, and opposition to it, the bill is not expected to become law until after the 2015 general election
  • The bill does not guarantee that HS2 will be built, but HS2 cannot be built without the bill becoming law
  • The government proposes to start construction in 2017, with the line between London and Birmingham due to be operational by 2026
  • A separate bill will be brought in later by the government to allow the the second phase - north of Birmingham - to go ahead, with the aim of that part opening in 2033

Speaking at the start of Monday's debate, Mr McLoughlin said the concerns of critics of the project must be addressed and that references to opponents as "either Luddites or nimbys" were unhelpful.

He said there would be "fair compensation" for those directly and indirectly affected by the scheme and the impact on the environment must be mitigated.

But he said there was an urgent need for new rail capacity and the plan would deliver better connectivity and wider economic benefits to the whole of the UK.

'Careful scrutiny'

Detail from high speed rail map

See maps of the route at the HS2 website

"This is a decision which we cannot duck. We have waited long enough," he said.

"Built right, on time and on budget, HS2 can help our great cities thrive... This project deserves careful scrutiny but Britain deserves it to go ahead."

A number of ministers whose constituencies lie on the proposed route - including Europe Minister David Lidington and Attorney General Dominic Grieve - were given permission to miss Monday's vote.

And recently appointed Treasury minister Andrea Leadsom, who has spoken out against the project in the past, is in Brussels and was not present in the Commons.

But a number of MPs stated their opposition to HS2 during the debate, scheduled to last six hours.

'Broad consensus'

Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire Andrew Bridgen said 240,000 people living within a mile of the proposed route were not entitled to compensation and would be "trapped in houses they cannot sell".

Former cabinet minister Cheryl Gillan, who tabled the amendment designed to derail the proposed legislation, said the £42.6bn project would threaten much-needed investment on the rest of the railway.

Start Quote

Is this really a top priority and the best way to spend almost £50bn worth of taxpayers' money?”

End Quote Cheryl Gillan Conservative MP

"I started as a nimby but I have looked at this project and I do not believe it is the best answer to the UK's transport problems," the Chesham and Amersham MP said.

"Is this really a top priority and the best way to spend almost £50bn worth of taxpayers' money?

"Many colleagues also abstained this evening, which shows that the scepticism of this project runs much more deeply than the voting figures suggest."

Labour's Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, said that, rather than spreading economic benefits more widely across the UK, it would "suck more powers to London and the South East".

'Another look'

Labour's support had been in doubt because of rising costs, but shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said the party "had had another look" to check it still provided value for money and would support the plan.

Although the government had mismanaged the project since it inherited it from the previous Labour administration in 2010, Ms Creagh said it was reassured that it was still needed.

"We have a broad consensus across the parties that this is the right thing for the nation and I hope we can proceed on that basis," she said.

But in a new report, The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) said the government risked misleading the public with claims that HS2 would transform the north of England.

The report's author, Richard Wellings, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was sceptical about claims that HS2 would be "transformative, it is going to tackle the north-south divide".

Alternatives

Mr Wellings said that instead of building HS2 the government should improve local and regional links in the north of England, including a cross-Pennine project linking Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester.

The Department for Transport said the IEA report was "flawed" and "simply wrong to say High Speed 1 hasn't brought significant benefits" to places like Ashford.

Meanwhile, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has called on the government to speed up construction of the line.

The BCC urged all political parties to set aside their short-term differences and Parliament to approve progress on the scheme quickly.

Both phases of the HS2 link are expected to cost £42.6bn, including contingencies, with another £7.5bn for trains.

Potential HS2 train design The IEA says it would be better to improve links between northern English cities than build HS2
Artist's impression of new station in Birmingham for the HS2 line Phase one of HS2, London to Birmingham, could be completed by 2026
Artist's impression of Canal Street, Birmingham The proposed new Curzon station in Birmingham would link HS2 phase one with the second phase towards Leeds and Manchester
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