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23 Mar 2010 : Column 58WH—continued

As Lord Adonis does not need to face a general election, and as the Department for Transport will presumably continue its work, will the Minister kindly go back to him to ask whether, in the Secretary of State's absence, another Minister could attend some of the public meetings in my constituency, or failing that, whether officials from the Department could come to give an explanation?

That is only fair, given that the Government have chosen to make their announcement so close to a general election. The Minister and I are both elected Members, and he knows as well as I do that Members will be cut off during the election from asking the Government questions and from getting research from the House of Commons Library. For Members whose constituencies along the line of the route will be so badly affected, the timing of the proposals is cynical and callous.

1.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on not only securing the debate, but raising his legitimate concerns in a very tempered manner, notwithstanding the passion that he demonstrated during his short speech.

Four Members of Parliament are present, two of whom have not been able to make speeches because of the brevity of this Adjournment debate. However, I know that the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) are equally concerned about some of the challenges and issues raised by the preferred route for HS2 and the implications for their constituents. They are of course welcome to meet me or the Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, to discuss any concerns that they have directly, as I know the hon. Member for Chesham
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and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has. The hon. Member for Aylesbury has of course also raised the issues on the Floor of the House and put on record the concerns for his constituents that he spotted straight away when the announcement was made on 11 March.

Before I turn to the specific effects of the Government's proposals on Buckinghamshire and to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I want to explain briefly why the Government believe that high-speed rail is the best way to enhance our inter-urban transport networks. In considering a project such as this, as hon. Members will appreciate, it is vital to balance the significant benefits that it will bring to the country with the impacts that it may have at local level.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the key inter-urban routes linking our major cities will become increasingly crowded and congested, with negative effects for both the economy and society. A new high-speed line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester, the east midlands, Sheffield, and Leeds could more than treble capacity on the congested west coast main line corridor, as well as improving journey times between major cities and releasing capacity on existing rail lines for additional commuter services and freight, particularly in the growth areas that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

In addition, by linking the proposed core high-speed rail network into the existing west coast and east coast main lines, it would be possible to provide high-speed services to other destinations such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh from the outset. The proposed network could, for instance, reduce journey times from Glasgow to London to as little as 3 hours 30 minutes, creating significant scope for modal shift from aviation to rail.

The modelling carried out by HS2 Ltd suggests that a high-speed line from London to Birmingham alone could provide benefits for the UK totalling over £29 billion and up to £32 billion if wider economic benefits such as agglomeration effects are taken into account. A more extensive network, such as the Y-shaped network proposed by the Government, would bring more significant benefits still. It would shrink journey times further, enable the UK's city economies to function more effectively together, and address the weaknesses of the current Victorian rail network, by providing fast and efficient links on both sides of the Pennines.

However, I accept that any infrastructure project of such a size will have some impacts at a local level, and I understand fully the concerns of hon. Members and their constituents about the effect that HS2 Ltd's recommended route could have on the county of Buckinghamshire. First, and most importantly-on the consultation point-I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government have not yet taken any decision on either whether a line such as this should be built or what route it should take. To answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, everything is up for grabs. When his constituents respond to the formal consultation, they should give their views about whether they think there should be a high-speed link at all, the preferred route and any additional points they may want to make. It is important that I should underscore that.

No such decision could possibly be taken without prior public consultation, and the Command Paper that we published on 11 March makes it quite clear that we
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will begin consultation in the autumn. As has been commented on, it will last up to six months, although it could last longer. I take on board the legitimate points raised on the consultation in relation to the exceptional hardship scheme, and the effect of purdah. I should like to write in reply to all the hon. Members present, because they have raised legitimate concerns about the effect that that could have on local authorities' or central Government's ability to raise awareness. Another point that was raised was the possible knock-on effect on an autumn formal consultation.

The consultation would have an impact on our overall strategy for high-speed rail and on the specific recommendations made by HS2 Ltd. As hon. Members will be aware-I know that they have all read the report from HS2 Ltd-a number of preferred routes were considered, and the preferred route, which was recommended by HS2 Ltd, was the option whose consequences for hon. Members' constituents has been recognised: route 3.

I have asked HS2 Ltd to carry out pre-consultation engagement with stakeholders such as local authorities. I accept and apologise for the fact that Buckinghamshire county council was inadvertently omitted from the list for the exceptional hardship scheme. I confirm, to reassure the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, that it has now received the documents.

Mrs. Gillan: Will the Minister also write to us to let us know what moneys will be available to local community groups and councils, who will be undertaking vast amounts of extra work, which will affect their budgets? Of course, some of our smaller voluntary organisations will not be able to muster what they need to make a case for another route, and I hope that moneys will be forthcoming from the Minister to assist the local authorities and those organisations.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Lady will be aware that the pre-consultation engagements that are being undertaken are over and above what is required for a major infrastructure project such as this, but it is important that we should listen to local communities' concerns. For example, if there is concern that they have not had access to the CD-ROMs that are available, or the documents or maps, we should be happy to look into that. I know that at the public meetings that have already taken place the Department has provided materials, but I ask hon. Members to let me know if there are problems getting materials from the Department for Transport or HS2 Ltd.

They key thing during the pre-consultation engagement is to inform effective communication of the consultation and its materials, particularly in areas that are likely to be most affected by the development proposals. Furthermore, even if the Government were to proceed, legislation would be required before construction could begin, providing those affected by any future line with a further opportunity to influence its development. We need to continue to ensure that all constituents have an opportunity to respond. If there is concern that some do not have the means, or that local authorities are limited in their capacity to do so, they need to let us know their concerns, which we shall try to address to make sure that as many people as possible respond both
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to the pre-consultation engagement and the formal consultation that begins in the autumn. There will be further consultation thereafter.

The route that HS2 Ltd has recommended would be straighter and faster than the other options, maximising its benefits for the country, but it also has a number of other advantages. Roughly a third of its route through the Chilterns is in tunnel, reducing its impacts on the local environment, and for more than half of that part of its route that is on the surface in the Chilterns, it follows existing transport corridors, notably the A413 corridor, which contains both a dual carriageway and the current Chiltern line. In contrast, while other options may also use extensive tunnelling in the Chilterns, on the surface they will run through open countryside. Indeed, even the most promising alternative identified by HS2 Ltd would still require a viaduct to be built across the picturesque Hughenden valley.

The route recommended by HS2 Ltd would also have a lower impact than the most promising alternative in terms of ground-borne noise and the isolation of settlements. A question was raised in the debate about noise, and among the things that we have asked HS2 Ltd to do is further mitigation work with respect to the impact on residents. The Secretary of State was not persuaded that HS2 Ltd had tried as hard as it could to mitigate some of the possible effects on residents. An aspect of that is the effect of modern technology in reducing noise. That is one reason for the delay in the publication of the environmental impact assessment and the appraisal of sustainability. I hope that when that is available, before the formal consultation, it will deal with some of the points that hon. Members have raised, and that improvements will have been made by HS2 Ltd to mitigate even further some of the possible disruption to residents. For the reasons I have given, the Government are of the view that HS2 Ltd's recommended route appears on balance to be the best option, although we will clearly take into account the responses to consultation before any final decision is taken.

Hon. Members raised a number of questions. I have a long speech, which I have not read because I am keen to deal with them. My officials have taken a note of all the questions and I shall write to hon. Members in the next few days. If they have further questions I am happy, as is the Secretary of State, to meet them. He has already met a number of MPs in the past week or so, and has met the Chilterns Conservation Board, and will continue to engage on the issue. It is important that no constituent should feel that their voice has not been heard.

Finally, we have learned the lessons of previous major infrastructure projects, including High Speed 1 and Crossrail, which is taking place right now. We are learning lessons all the time from Crossrail. We are trying to ensure that in the process of building High Speed 2 we mitigate any problems caused to residents who are local to whatever route is chosen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury again on securing the debate, which I expect will be the first of many.

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Luton Railway Station

1.30 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for having selected this debate about the development of Luton station. I realise that when compared with the current economic problems it might seem a rather parochial matter, but for the people who live and work in Luton it is important. I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate. I had hoped that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) would have been here, as he has significant constituency interests in the development of Luton station. We have worked cordially together on these matters before.

Luton station is to be found in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). However, my hon. Friend and others will be aware of why I have raised the matter. I have travelled daily from Luton station for the past 41 years, and many hundreds if not thousands of my constituents do the same, so the problem has a significant constituency interest for me as well.

As the House will know, we in the home counties all face growth pressures; some are welcome, and some are not. When we agree with the policy directions being taken, we press for action to address our local difficulties-or, more urgently, to improve barely tolerated situations. That is what I seek to do today.

There has been positive and continuing progress on transport investments in the area, thanks to intervention by Ministers and the Government office for the east of England. Recently, there has also been high-level support from Network Rail. However, we face a crucial series of separate funding decisions. Although approvals are welcome, each time we are left to identify the remaining gaps and to decide what further decisions are needed to assure a strategic future for Luton. The town that I represent is an integral part of the wider east of England regeneration and growth agenda. I look for the continued support of Ministers and Departments to assist in the strategic delivery of those priorities.

Luton Gateway is part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. It includes Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis and the surrounding area. The gateway is a collaborative organisation, combining the interests of Luton borough council and the new Central Bedfordshire council. In recent decades, the area has faced huge economic pressures, resulting from the run-down of car and van manufacturing. Indeed, it is a priority regeneration area.

The total urban population was estimated at more than 236,000 in 200l. It continues to grow. To achieve a more balanced local economic position, we have a target of creating 35,000 additional jobs by 2031. We foresee there being a further 41,700 households in the same period. There are major implications for housing requirements, including another 7,000 so-called affordable homes, and for inward jobs investment and transport infrastructure.

The current downturn has increased local economic pressures, so it is even more important to achieve fundamental changes in the transport offer. In that way, congestion on the roads and railways could be reduced, and Luton Gateway could become a major point of inward investment that is easy to reach and attractive
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and easy to travel around. Those who know the Luton area well will understand that it is a significant task.

I wish to focus on the quality of access to central Luton. At its heart is Luton station. To put it at its simplest, the station, which adjoins the town centre, is not something that I am proud to show to visitors-nor, indeed, to people from Luton. It has been assessed as one of the worst stations in Britain, measured by equivalent passenger numbers. It is drab, dreary and depressing.

The station approaches are essentially unchanged since investment in the 1930s by the London Midland and Scottish railway. The station was badly designed and is difficult to reach by foot, bus or car, yet 3.5 million passengers entered and left it in 2007-08, making it busier than Norwich or Bedford. It is the 10th busiest station in the east of England.

Rebuilding Luton station is clearly a project that needs to happen now. We were pleased to welcome the Secretary of State for Transport to see its dismal night-time reality at the end of his marathon journey around England on 17 November last year. The "Better Rail Stations" report prioritises immediate works at Luton station. We in Luton are also excited by the long-term vision of that report, with its potential of becoming a super-hub integrated with the town centre, the busway and the airport-a true gateway for a regional growth centre.

Several project elements are already under way, to which Luton borough council has contributed more than £2 million. That contribution is helping to accelerate design and project progress by Network Rail-first, on a new station footbridge, which is critical to achieving direct access between the high town community and central Luton and to provide disability-compliant access; and, secondly, an engineering assessment of the Luton station slab, which is critical to the comprehensive station redesign. In addition, the council has secured funding for the £20 million multi-storey car park, which will replace the current surface parking; it is due to open in August this year.

Work has already begun on an adjoining Luton station quarter development. There is strong local enthusiasm for including an improved station and transport interchange into that plan. The announcement by the Minister of State for Transport on 10 March this year to authorise the construction of the Luton to Dunstable busway and to fund £80 million of the work was widely welcomed.

The busway will be the spine public transport for the gateway urban area. It will increase public transport's capacity and capabilities, as part of a balanced transport investment programme to support the regeneration and growth agendas. The remaining £9 million is being provided by Luton borough council and private investors. The busway is due to open in 2012. It will make Luton station the primary interchange hub for most of Luton, and for Dunstable and Houghton Regis in central Bedfordshire.

Completion of the comprehensive station redesign and reconstruction is now the critical task. Progress on the immediate scheme awaits the release of funding by the Department for Transport and project approval by Network Rail. The immediately available funding offered by Network Rail is £5 million of the £50 million award that was announced by Lord Adonis. That leaves a
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£3 million shortfall. Luton borough council is already funding more than £7 million of the total works for the hub, including its contribution to the busway. The council will seek to identify other sources of funding, but it cannot be guaranteed. However, early funding completion is required.

With the growth prospects for the gateway and the additional accessibility that will be achieved by a new high-quality hub station, I believe that the project deserves regional and central funds, and that it should be included in Network Rail's regulated asset base. I recommend that rather modest project to the House and to my hon. Friend the Minister. I look to the Minister to say what discussions there have been within his Department and with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, taking account of the infrastructure funding priorities that I highlighted earlier.

My final observations are about access between the motorway network and the hub, which will provide an interchange to the east midlands InterCity railway. We still have a problem, as the east of England Minister knows well, with the need to rebuild junction 1OA on the Ml. That is acting as a blockage to the economy of Luton. The problems are compounded by the Highways Agency providing a free-flow slip from the Ml on to the Ml spur as part of the motorway widening scheme between junctions 6A and 10. We now have traffic queues every morning peak from the Ml.

The Government policy document "Delivering a Sustainable Transport System" was published in spring 2009. It defines the route between the Ml and Luton airport as a "strategic national corridor". The improvement of a junction in that location would meet the three key criteria set out in the Eddington study on transport's contribution to economic growth and productivity. They focus on main urban areas, inter-urban journeys, and access from the urban areas to international gateways.

In light of the Eddington study, it is unfortunate that the £22 million scheme to improve junction 10A is not yet agreed as a high priority in the regional funding programme. From a business point of view, the congestion directly reduces efficiency and profitability. It adversely affects the ability to regenerate and develop sites in Luton and their value, which might be a source of funding for the public transport investments needed at Luton station and its sister station, Luton Airport Parkway.

I emphasise again that Luton Gateway is a growing urban region that makes a major contribution to Government-directed targets. In turn, we welcome recent positive decisions that reaffirm the importance of Luton as a transport hub. We look to the Department for Transport to work jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government and east of England Ministers, and with local and regional interests, to help complete the investment authorisations for those strategic regeneration and growth objectives.

1.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this debate, on what is clearly an important issue for his constituents as well as for others travelling to and from Luton station. I have carefully listened to his points.

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