HS2 passes first Commons hurdle

Braintree and Witham Times: Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the project would be a vital link to the north of the country Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the project would be a vital link to the north of the country

Legislation for the controversial High Speed 2 railway eased over its first Commons hurdles tonight despite facing fierce opposition on the Government benches.

As expected, a wrecking amendment proposed by former Cabinet minister Cheryl Gillan was defeated 451 to 50, majority 401, with Tory rebels expected to make up around half of the aye votes when the division is analysed.

The High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill was then given a second reading 452 to 41, majority 411, as the Government and Opposition front benches united behind the plans for the link between London and Birmingham.

Rebel ringleader Mrs Gillan, whose Chesham and Amersham constituency is slated to be scythed through by the HS2 project, won applause from the public gallery with a vow to scrutinise the plans "inch by inch", even while acknowledging the "David and Goliath" vote on her amendment would always be won by Goliath.

Several ministers who are opposed to the project were thought to have stayed away, with Foreign Office Minister David Lidington in Estonia and newly appointed Treasury Minister Andrea Leadsom called to a meeting in Brussels.

Mr Lidington has said he is prepared to vote against the plans and resign later in the legislative process if concerns of his Aylesbury constituents are not met.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin had earlier made the case for the line, insisting the time was right to build the first mainline north of London in more than a century.

He said: "Whilst I wholly understand the concerns of those MPs who constituents are affected by the route, I also know this is a decision we cannot duck. We have waited long enough - the West Coast Mainline can take no more.

"It is time for better links north to south and east to west, time to connect to world markets to make the most of their skills and talents, time for HS2."

Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh joined endorsements for the plan, telling the second reading debate: "High Speed 2 will cut congestion on the railways, better connect our cities and help deliver a one-nation economic recovery which is why Labour is supporting this Bill tonight.

"It's 335 miles will be the longest and most ambitious peace of rail infrastructure to be built so far in this or the last century and managed properly HS2 has the power to transform the economic geography of our country.

"It will build our great cities and bring them closer together. It will connect people with each other to work and to leisure. And it will help rebalance the economy creating new skilled jobs and apprenticeships in every nation and region of our economy."

High profile rebel Michael Fabricant, sacked as a Conservative Party vice-chairman over his opposition to the project, said: " Five years ago, the Prime Minister, leader of the Conservative Party, said the Adonis route is profoundly wrong, that its whole implementation would be damaging to the environment, be damaging to local areas which could otherwise enjoy peace and quiet and would be damaging to the nation as a whole.

"And yet here we are five years on with the Government supporting the original Adonis plan. I find that quite extraordinary."

Transport select committee chairwoman Louise Ellman backed the plans, telling MPs her committee had looked at possible alternatives to HS2, including an upgrade of the West Coast Mainline.

She said. "The committee was very clear...u pgrading as an alternative will not provide the step change that is required."

Tory former deputy chief whip Sir John Randall said he would vote against the Bill, telling MPs the issue of HS2 was as important to him as the invasion of Iraq in 2003. S ir John resigned as an opposition whip in March 2003 over Britain's involvement in the invasion.

The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip told the Commons: "I was told when I first came in here that the thing we should always think is put your country first, your constituency second and your party third, and I agree with that.

"I'm not putting my constituency first. I am putting my country first because I think at the moment this plan is not suitable for our country because it's going to ruin too much of it... I vote against tonight with a heavy but resolute heart."

The Hybrid Bill will now be scrutinised by a special select committee of MPs which, because of the Bill's unusual nature, will hear petitions from people affected directly by the line.

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