PLANS for a £50bn high-speed rail line linking Yorkshire and London were poised to take a huge step forward last night as MPs prepared to vote the main HS2 Bill through its crucial second reading in Parliament.
The vast majority of MPs from all political parties said they would vote in favour of HS2 as an impassioned Commons debate continued late into the night.
Party whips predicted that only around 30 MPs would rebel and vote against the new high-speed line, which has the official backing of all three major parties.
The most high-profile rebel was Foreign Office Minister David Lidlington, who told his local newspaper in Aylesbury that he would resign his Government post if further concessions were not granted for his affected constituents. Mr Lidlington was one of three Tory Ministers who avoided last night’s vote by ensuring they were away from Westminster on Government business.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin delivered a speech yesterday which sought to reach out to the scheme’s critics on the Conservative backbenches.
“Of course I understand the depths of concern the line has caused in some places,” Mr McLoughlin said. “That is why I have made it very clear to my officials that there is no place for talk of Luddites or Nimbys in the department. We must respect people and try to help them meet their concerns.”
But the Derbyshire Dales MP repeatedly stressed that the current ‘Victorian’ rail network is now almost full, and that a new North-South line will be vital for the needs of future generations.
“Even on moderate forecasts, services will be increasingly full by the mid-2020s,” Mr McLoughlin said. “More upgrades will not provide the extra capacity that we need.”
Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh, the MP for Wakefield, was unequivocal in her support for HS2 after months of dallying from Labour.
Asked why the Opposition party was now firmly backing the project, she said: “I think on issues of national importance, it is important to work co-operatively across all sides of the House.”
She said the appointment of former Olympics and Network Rail chief Sir David Higgins as chairman of HS2 had reassured Labour, and that the “key risk” to the project is now “political delay.” She added:“We believe that this is the best way to move to the low-carbon transport infrastructure that our country needs.”
But she too faced opposition from her own backbenches, with Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman telling the Commons he has grown sceptical about the scheme’s benefits for the North.
“I started off supporting HS2, because I thought it was going to bring power and wealth and activity and jobs to the Northern regions,” he said.
“I changed my mind – because the research increasingly shows it will suck more power and strength to London and the South East.”
Mr McLoughlin, dismissed this, saying the North has had to put up with second-rate infrastructure for far too long.