No shortage of empty seats here

In no less than eleven blogs, posted over the space of eight weeks or so, I have tried to make sense of a very busy couple of weeks in the first half of July when Parliament considered matters HS2 in a number of its forums. Whilst I have been focusing on this period, our politicians have quit Westminster for the summer recess and returned again, only to recess again for the party conference season. This is typical of the time lag that readers of my blog often find themselves having to tolerate, and is due to the relatively low frequency that I post – once every four days – and the in-depth analysis that I attempt. I have thought about increasing the posting frequency, as I did at the start of this year for my series on the compensation consultation, but, to be frank, I don’t think that I could cope with the additional demands that this would make on my time (and sanity). So I’m afraid that I can’t promise any improvement in topicality any time soon.

The most dedicated environment watchers amongst you may also feel that what has transpired in this particular corner of cyberspace in the last couple of months has had very little to do with issues green, and you would, I confess, be right. My excuse for this is that if HS2 is to be stopped then it is in Westminster that this decision will be taken, and it will be the politicians that take it, so what goes on there is important to those of us with more than a just passing interest in HS2. I also feel that the procedures and language that Parliament employs can make proceedings obscure and can be off-putting for public observers. I consider that providing a critique and explanation of these proceedings is a niche that was unoccupied, and one that I could try and fill to some benefit; I hope that you agree.

So that is my excuse for still reporting on proceedings in Parliament more than two months after the event, and I’m afraid that I haven’t finished yet. I want to return just one more time to the sweltering days of early July, to an adjournment debate that was held in Westminster Hall. At least this time I can claim, with justification, that I am returning to matters environmental, because the debate’s subject was “High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands)”.

The debate was secured by Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield, and he was supported by Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham; both of these constituencies would, of course, be directly affected by HS2. The Government was represented by Rt Hon Simon Burns MP, Minister for Transport, and the Opposition by Lilian Greenwood, Shadow Transport Minister. These were the only four speakers, but there were also interventions from Christopher Pincher, Conservative MP for Tamworth, Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford, and Andrew Turner, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight.

Debates in Westminster Hall are hardly earth-changing events, on the whole; it is very much a secondary chamber. Tuesday and Wednesday mornings in this chamber are set aside for adjournment debates; these provide an opportunity for backbench MPs to raise an issue that they have a particular  personal interest in, often, but not necessarily, relating to issues affecting their own constituencies, and to obtain a response from a government minister. In Westminster Hall they come in two flavours; one-and-a-half hour debates, and half-hour debates. The HS2 debate was of the longer variety, indicating that the Commons business managers considered that the debate would have more general appeal, involving a number of Members.

Backbenchers do not turn out for adjournment debates in large numbers, and it is not at all unusual for attendance to be limited to the backbencher who secured the debate and the responding minister. The HS2 debate fared little better than this, which was a pity as the quality of the debate was very good, on the whole. In addition to the seven Members who appear in the Hansard record, and who I have identified above, there was a trio of silent attendees, whose presence I have picked up from the video of the event. Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer, was, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Simon Burns, an obligatory attendee for the whole debate – he sat directly behind his master, passing him notes. The only other Member who remained present for the whole of the debate was Iain Stewart, Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South. He was joined on the Government side of the room for the end of the debate by Nick Bowles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stanford and a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government; however, it transpired that he was in the room to reply for the Government in the debate that followed.

Lilian Greenwood remained a lone representative of the Labour Party for the whole of the debate and even the three Members who made interventions in the early part of the debate had left the chamber by the time that the Minister rose to make his closing speech.

It is very regrettable, to say the least, that such an important environmental issue as the plight of our ancient woodlands appears to be of concern to so few Members of Parliament. I’m afraid that it is indicative of the general lack of interest in the protection of our environment that seems to be a feature of the current political class.

In my next postings I will review the speeches made by the participants in the debate.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on September 21, 2013 at 6:21 am

    This is not a debate but individuals pontificating in areas of little depth of knowledge or understanding of direct connection. Too little too late. Wrongly placed in the planning process. Dealing with the debris of poor plans. Sorry to say but this is misguided emphasis by MPs who are mainly engaged in their personal and vested interests of which there are a wide diversity is of little positive contribution to correcting shortcomings with HS2. HS2 was for one reason to go as fast as possible between London and Birmingham. What was the choice of route through Buckinghamshire or through Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire was not established, only Route 8 was considered to the east and not a route adding to MML and ECML populated corridor.
    As a result woodlands were cut as with motorways. Less woodlands along the East Coast option not studies by HS2. Where are the people Buckinghamshire/Northamptonshire or Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire that need commuter services in different directions. Not the first but the last. There are 10 clusters for the corridor of the last. What is the rail issue, well HS2 wanted the fastest unreliable/unavailable service and opted for one track each way in tunnels and through open countryside. They got the reaction this does not make sense. Neither do these jobbing MP exchanges. Time for the UK to move on and address the more pressing problems of power and road space and …….. not HS2 Route 3.


    • I feel Chris that you are being unjustifiably harsh on the two backbench MPs who spoke in the debate. Both, in my view, are genuinely concerned about the impact that the route chosen for HS2 would have on ancient woodlands and both expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of Route 3. May I please refer you to the next two upcoming blogs, which report on what they said; far from not making sense, they both gave very well-argued cases why the current plans should be changed if HS2 goes ahead.


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