THIS week, the Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of the HS2 Bill. The result was not a surprise. The leaderships of all three main political parties supported the project.
For the last four years I have fought as hard as I could within Government against HS2, pressing on the Prime Minister and successive Transport Secretaries on behalf of local people all the arguments against it.
Given the decisive and enduring support for the project in Parliament, we need to focus on now is what we locally can do next.
First, we need to recognise what cross-party support for the Bill means in terms of practical politics.
After the next election, whether alone or in coalition, either David Cameron or Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister. Only if one or both of the big political parties changes its mind on HS2 (probably on financial grounds) will that cross-party majority be at risk. So we need to concentrate now on mitigation and compensation.
I would strongly advise any local resident who is able to petition the Committee examining the Bill to do so. The Committee can amend the Bill to require extra environmental protection measures like tunnels, embankments and sound barriers. It can also demand more generous compensation than currently proposed.
In particular, I hope local residents will support the proposal for additional tunnelling through the Chilterns. Subject only to the views of constituents on the new tunnel route proposed, this is something I strongly endorse. Without adequate tunnelling and other mitigation, I shall resign from the Government and vote against the Bill at Report or 3rd Reading in the Commons.
But the Committee can only examine those things about which it receives valid petitions. People can petition individually or as part of a bigger group or both and it’s not as daunting a process as some fear. The MPs on the Committee all have constituents – they’re used to talking to people of all backgrounds at their surgeries. The Committee really acts as a sort of glorified planning inquiry.
At the same time, we need to step up the pressure on Transport Ministers over compensation. If generously interpreted, the proposed Need to Sell scheme could be a godsend for many – retired people wanting to downsize, or a growing family needing an extra bedroom or bigger garden. The key test (as I’ve told the Transport Secretary) is at what point a ‘wish’ to sell becomes a ‘need’ and I shall continue to push hard on this point.
In the last week, I have talked at length to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary about the need for them to do more on mitigation and compensation. Patrick McLoughlin’s speech on Monday included some welcome steps forward on that agenda. But there is a huge amount still to be done and I will not rest in using my access to the most senior members of the Government to lobby for a fair and generous solution for Buckinghamshire.