To all members of Wendover Parish Council,
I am taking the opportunity to write to all Wendover parish councillors, following the letter I received on your behalves from your chairman, Tom Walsh, dated 29 July 2020 (Appendix One).
Firstly, I would like to pay tribute to the diligent and robust work of all members of the parish council who, for the past five years, have come together for the good of the people of Wendover in calling for a bored mined tunnel. Although I am a newly elected MP, the strength of your arguments is known across government; indeed the HS2 minister has noted as much in his correspondence to me.
The letter from Mr Walsh raised several points about the conduct of both myself and my predecessor in regard to your campaigning efforts which I feel need to be clarified in order to correct a number of misapprehensions – which I am sure will have been unintentional. I apologise in advance for the length of this letter, but I believe the situation warrants a considerable degree of detail.
Let me state unequivocally at the outset that as the Member of Parliament for Wendover, I am firmly committed to minimising the impact of HS2 on your lives. I am extremely disappointed that the decision to proceed with the railway was taken, but believe we must all now seek to achieve the best mitigation and compensation possible.
During my election campaign last year, I consistently highlighted my opposition to HS2 in hustings, in my election literature and in my first meeting with parish council representatives when I was briefed about the mined tunnel proposal. It is important to remember that this was at the time when the entire HS2 project was under review, and along with many others, I hoped it would be an opportunity for a change of heart by the new government.
Once elected, I took every opportunity to deliver on my pledge and speak out against HS2 in its entirety, both alone and working with other colleagues. These efforts included:
- 1:1 meeting with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid MP, followed by a detailed letter dated 8 January 2020 (appendix two)
- 1:1 conversation with then Chief Secretary to the Treasury (now Chancellor of the Exchequer), Rishi Sunak MP, about value for money
- 1:1 conversation with the Prime Minister’s Transport Adviser Andrew Gilligan
- 1:1 meeting with former HS2 minister Paul Maynard MP about scrapping the project entirely. I also discussed the merits of the mined tunnel proposal and asked his department to further investigate your proposals
- I was a member of the HS2 Review Group of MPs and helped organise the group’s wide-ranging efforts trying to persuade ministers of the merits of scrapping HS2
- and I had conversations with the prime minister himself on two separate occasions, including with colleagues at a full and frank meeting in the House of Commons.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the prime minister was not persuaded, and the decision was made to proceed with HS2. I was informed of this by the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps shortly before the public announcement and I instantly asked him whether he would therefore allow the mined tunnel in Wendover to proceed, and he instantly replied that he would not. Nonetheless, I stated that I had considerable information from both Wendover Parish Council and the Wendover HS2 Group, which I wanted him to consider, and he agreed to a meeting.
As you are aware, the concept of a mined tunnel was fully considered by select committees of both Houses of Parliament between 2014 and 2017, some years before I became the MP. It was rejected at that stage with the House of Commons Select Committee making specific reference to the proposed costs. Whilst I am fully aware that the parish council contests this strongly, that argument was rejected by the Committee.
The legislation for Phase 1 of HS2 sets out in Schedule One of the Act clearly that Works No. 2/14 and 2/28 at Wendover will be:
“Work No. 2/14 - A railway (8.3 kilometres in length) partly in tunnel and partly on viaduct commencing by a junction with Work No. 2/1, at its termination, continuing north-westwards, and terminating at a point 240 metres north-west of the roundabout joining the A413 London Road with Small Dean Lane; Work No. 2/14 includes a viaduct over the A413 London Road, the Marylebone to Aylesbury Line and Small Dean Lane.”
“A railway (8.98 kilometres in length) partly in tunnel, commencing by a junction with Work No. 2/14 at its termination and terminating at a point 540 metres south-west of the roundabout junction of the A418 Oxford Road with Coldharbour Way; Work No. 2/28 includes bridges over Chalkshire Stream, Stoke Brook and Sedrup Ditch.”
In short, the law passed in 2017 states that there will not be a mined tunnel in Wendover. Despite this, I pushed for the Transport Department to consider fully your arguments, and ahead of the promised meeting with ministers, I submitted two written questions (UIN 693 and UIN 692) about a mined tunnel in Wendover (Appendix Three). The response of Grant Shapps MP was unbending:
“Even if the alternative mined schemes were broadly comparable in these respects, the subsequent costs of seeking legislative consent for the detailed design change and the consequential cost of delaying the introduction of HS2 services do not represent good value for money or an effective use of public money”.
Nonetheless, I had a lengthy meeting on 3 March 2020 with the new HS2 minister, Andrew Stephenson MP (on behalf of the Secretary of State, who was involved in urgent coronavirus discussions) and key officials, at which I was able to present your arguments in detail. It would be fair to say that this was a meeting at which opinions were presented forcefully, and I can absolutely assure you that I did not mince my words over both the mined tunnel and the general treatment of Wendover residents. The minister stated again, however, that the government would not change its mind. I was insistent that the DfT should provide a detailed written response to the points you and I had raised. This was done in the form of a letter dated 30 March, which the parish council was sent via Mr Walsh, and which, inter alia, states (Appendix Four):
“I mirror the sentiments of [former minister] Nusrat Ghani when she sympathised that this will be very disappointing for your constituents to hear due to the time, cost and effort expended by them in their efforts to change the approved scheme, but after now providing a higher level of detail on the reasons why my Department has rejected the calls for a mined tunnel, I hope that your constituents will at least be assured that everyone involved has considered their alternatives seriously, fairly, honestly and with the appropriate levels of scrutiny expected. But I must reiterate that the Government will not be making any changes to the consented scheme.”
In response, I was then sent follow-up questions compiled by the parish council’s political consultant, Murray Stewart. I forwarded these directly to the department on 29 April. Again, the minister stated clearly that the department would not deviate from the consented scheme as approved by parliament. I have attached his letter as Appendix Five.
Subsequent to this exchange of correspondence, I was asked to join a Zoom meeting with the Wendover HS2 group, in which Mr Walsh also participated.
I was asked for my advice. It would have been simple for me to have said "keep asking, keep pushing, keep repeating the same mantra". But it would not have been the responsible thing for me to have said. Anyone can tell someone what they want to hear; it takes more integrity and courage to tell the harsh truth. My duty is to be straight with my constituents, even when it means having to deliver an unwelcome message.
Consequently, based on repeated refusals from ministers at all levels of government, orally and in writing, even to contemplate reconsidering the mined tunnel, and with great reluctance, I advised that it would now be worth proposing alternative mitigation measures that I could push hard to the Department for Transport.
I completely stand by this advice.
This does not mean I agree that a mined tunnel is inappropriate, let alone that I agree with the DfT’s analysis. But I cannot shift an immovable object, and I believe seeking a pragmatic solution to mitigation is required. If, as is the case here, I have been told that the mined tunnel is unequivocally not an option, then it falls to me to try to find alternative ways to reduce the impact HS2 will have on you.
For this reason, I have strongly endorsed the paper produced by the Wendover HS2 group with the HS2 minister. This paper makes alternative suggestions for mitigation, while fully recognising that none is as good as a mined tunnel. I have asked the minister to ensure the proposals are thoroughly considered by his officials.
Your chairman’s letter concludes with reference to two priorities or actions for me:
- “The first priority for us at present is to get access to the “evidence” of any reviews of our Mined Tunnel Proposal.”
The DfT considers this to be contained in the letter of 30 March 2020 from Andrew Stephenson MP. I understand from my Senior Parliamentary Assistant, Elliott Banks, who also worked for my predecessor, that several FOI requests have previously been sent by the parish council for this information without success, and that the letter I obtained does at least provide more detail than before. In short, the department is not going to provide any evidence beyond what has been sent already.
- “The second priority is to achieve the face to face technical meeting that has loomed and faded so many times already.”
The DfT has refused such a request as its officials consider the matter closed on the basis that they will not reopen the Phase One Act; in the department’s eyes a technical meeting is therefore unnecessary since it would serve no purpose.
This is also an opportune moment to address a remark by your chairman in August’s edition of Wendover News regarding “the reluctance of our MP to ask questions of government on the mined tunnel”, and his decision to ask them via members of the House of Lords instead.
On 23 March, the Speaker of the House of Commons asked MPs to be judicious in their use of written parliamentary questions (WPQs) given the intense pressure all government departments were under due to coronavirus. Responding to WPQs takes a considerable amount of civil servants’ time. Cllr Walsh and Mr Stewart were told clearly that for this reason I did not intend to place any written questions before the summer recess. Given the unequivocal nature of the DfT's lengthy letter refusing any prospect of a mined tunnel, I certainly did not consider it appropriate to place other written questions on exactly the same topic which would not change the substantive decision. It would have been wholly irresponsible of me to take time from civil servants who could otherwise be assisting the coronavirus effort, for absolutely no concrete benefit.
I would like to assure you, however, that I have not stopped questioning HS2: I have asked several oral questions in the House of Commons including to the prime minister, the Paymaster General, and the Second Churches Commissioner.
My parliamentary team is continuing to work on many outstanding issues, key amongst them, questions over hydrology. In addition, we are liaising with the local environment agency and council regarding the Schedule 17 and Schedule 33 notices, to ensure that all the necessary information is obtained before permissions are potentially granted.
I make a few points in conclusion:
First, it is worth reiterating that I do not want HS2, and never have done. Indeed, I again challenged the Transport Secretary personally about its continued relevance in light of the coronavirus pandemic, only to receive the same response as before. I am deeply concerned by the report of the National Audit Office, the poor return on investment and the spiralling costs. But the decision to proceed has been taken and is set down in law as a result of the democratic process.
Second, I share your dismay at the conduct of HS2 Ltd. Indeed, so does the prime minister himself. My staff and I are in regular contact with HS2 Ltd’s representative for this area, and we make every effort to resolve individual constituents’ cases over compensation and written assurances and undertakings. I have spoken personally with the Chief Executive to highlight both specific cases and the company’s general approach and been promised that there will be improvements. I know you have heard this before, but I have told him in terms that I will not relent in continuing to hold HS2 Ltd to account publicly.
Third, I will continue to raise the concerns of residents and businesses across the entire Aylesbury constituency over HS2 in parliament, through the most appropriate means. This may sometimes be through written parliamentary questions, but my preference for a direct and immediate ministerial response is to have a personal conversation or to raise the matter from the floor of the chamber itself.
In my short time as your MP, I have endeavoured to give Wendover’s residents and representatives pragmatic, mature advice and intelligent support, which I continue to regard as being more honest and responsible than taking a purely dogmatic approach. I remain utterly determined to serve you to the best of my ability, and to work with all the people of Wendover in the months and years ahead to achieve the best possible mitigation
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and its appendices, which I hope you will have found helpful and comprehensive. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Member of Parliament for Aylesbury
 Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 18 February 2020, cW)