MP David Lidington has written a letter to constituents affected by HS2 to explain why he didn’t vote on the hybrid bill for the scheme on Monday.
The charm offensive comes after the bill was passed with a majority of 401, signifying that the House of Commons approves HS2 in theory.
Mr Lidington was meeting the foreign minister of Estonia at the time of the vote as part of his Minister for Europe role.
But he says he will resign from that position at a later stage of the bill, if mitigation for affected residents is not sufficient.
The letter read:
As you will know, on Monday the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of the High Speed Rail Bill by 452 votes to 41 votes, a majority of 11 to 1. This was not a surprise. The leaders of all the main political parties, down to and including the Scottish Nationalists, support the project. The scale of that cross-party majority means that overwhelming support in Parliament for HS2 will remain throughout this Parliament and the next. The only way that would change is if one or both of the two big parties were to change its policy.
Like you, I have enormous concerns about the project. I have profound doubts not only about its environmental impact, but also about the business case behind it. I fought as hard as I possibly could within the Government to present the case against HS2 and I also made sure that every argument put by my constituents was presented forcefully to Transport Ministers and others.
Since you first elected me, over two decades ago, I have always tried to act in your best interests. I believe I am doing so now. The reality is I cannot stop HS2. There are too few of us opposed, and too many others in favour. I know it would be popular for me to have voted against HS2. But doing so would not have stopped it going ahead or dented the 11 to 1 majority in favour – and would have damaged my ability to do what is best for the local area. HS2 will have an impact not only on people living in our area, but also on future generations. My duty is to do my utmost to protect our local communities and landscapes along the route.
Some of the most critical issues concerning HS2 are still to be decided. For example, decisions on where there will be additional tunnelling, noise reduction, landscaping and screening in particular locations still need to be taken. Important questions remain unresolved on compensation as well, especially on the scope of the Need to Sell scheme which needs to be a lot more wide-ranging than the Hardship Scheme. The rules currently proposed for compensation to business and to small landlords also need improvement. Add to that the issue of how we can get some benefits for our area, like a good share of HS2 apprenticeships and contracting opportunities, as well as improvements to our local road and rail infrastructure. People in Buckinghamshire are being expected to shoulder a very heavy cost for a project that will bring no direct benefit to our area. It’s only right and fair that we should seek both to limit the costs and secure benefits to individuals and communities as compensation.
I thought long and hard about what I should do at Second Reading. I came to the conclusion that while resigning and voting with the small minority who opposed the Bill would win me some short-term applause, it would make no difference to HS2 being approved at Second Reading, but would harm my chance of getting the Government to accept the changes that local campaigners are seeking. Previous issues that I have championed to Ministers include the extension of the Wendover Green Tunnel and the Stoke Mandeville bypass, which are excellent ideas put forward by local people and are now included within the Scheme. I therefore kept to a very longstanding official visit on behalf of the Government, which had the effect of me abstaining on the Second Reading vote. As you may be aware, Cheryl Gillan, the MP for Chesham and Amersham, said in her speech during the debate that it is important to have MPs fighting the corner for local communities both within the Government and on the backbenches.
Decisions about HS2 are taken in Government, by Ministers I work with every day. Last week, I saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer one-to-one and talked several times to the Transport Secretary about changes that you, my constituents, want to see. I am in a better position to do that, as a fellow member of the Government, than I would be as a backbencher, especially one who had deliberately walked out.
Patrick McLoughlin’s speech on 28 April did include some of what I wanted. He committed himself to look at further noise mitigation and screening for Western Aylesbury (i.e. from Hawkslade to Fairford Leys) and to making it possible for St Mary’s Wendover to continue as a concert venue and place of worship. I was also pleased by his commitment to continue to work with the National Trust on their idea for land bridges across the line and the reference to Aylesbury UTC getting a share of the training college for HS2.
On compensation, the Secretary of State has now said at the Despatch Box that the Need to Sell scheme is not just a relabelled Hardship Scheme but is intended to be more generous.
I was also pleased by Mr McLoughlin’s comments that he has made it clear to both his department and HS2 Ltd that there is no place for talk about luddites and NIMBYS and that those affected by HS2 must be respected. I had explained both to him and the Prime Minister how wounding and offensive local people have found that kind of language when it has been used in the past. I hope and expect that we do see the change in attitude that Mr McLoughlin has demanded.
These concessions are welcome, but this is not enough. As we go forward to the Select Committee and later Commons stages of the Bill, I shall not rest in pressing for more.
I have already discussed in detail with local campaign groups and parish councils the improvements to mitigation and compensation that they want to see and I will continue to lobby my utmost to secure them.
One big issue in particular stands out. It is clear to me that a further tunnel is the only way to provide real mitigation for the Chilterns landscape, and more importantly for the people in Dunsmore, Wendover Dean and Wendover.
The Bill will now be scrutinised by a Parliamentary Committee, which will recommend improvements. I will argue strongly that a tunnel is essential.
Unless a tunnel, and other satisfactory mitigation measures, and compensation arrangements are agreed, I will not be able to remain a member of the Government and will vote against the Bill before it leaves the House of Commons.
Member of Parliament for Aylesbury