Thank you for that introduction, Sir Paul.
I’d also like to thank Andrea for organising this event and I’d like to thank all of you here who have taken the trouble to come along to Parliament today (26 October 2010) to take part.
I am certain that this meeting will provide a valuable opportunity for those affected by a potential new high speed rail line to express their views and make their voice heard.
Unfortunately I can’t stay for the whole debate, but the Secretary of State will join you later in the session to take part in the question and answer panel.
The government is fully aware of the fears you have about the impact high speed rail could have on your homes and your communities.
Let me assure you that your local MPs are providing a strong voice for you in holding the government to account on this.
Let me also assure you that we are listening both to your MPs and to you the communities affected by HS2 proposals.
As many of you will be aware, a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State visited the line of route recommended by HS2 Ltd.
In the series of meetings he held, he heard your views clearly and passionately expressed.
The government fully acknowledges the importance of balancing the wider benefits of high speed rail with the local impacts on landscapes and communities.
We fully appreciate that we need to listen to the views of the communities who could be affected and we know it is essential that we address and reduce the local impact of high speed rail where possible.
We believe that careful mitigation measures can address the most intrusive local impacts to deliver an overall solution which is balanced and fair.
We have been working hard since the election to get the right solution on high speed rail.
In the summer, the Secretary of State asked HS2 Ltd to carry out further work on links to Heathrow and to HS1 for a connection to the channel tunnel and Europe.
This would increase international connectivity and strengthen the potential for a switch from air to rail.
In October he announced the government’s preferred option for lines to Manchester and Leeds dividing in the west Midlands - significantly increasing the economic benefits of high speed rail.
In the meantime HS2 Ltd has been working on further ways to improve the line of route to reduce the social and environmental impact on local people.
They have been running a series of technical seminars to help local action groups understand the detailed work being undertaken on the business case, technical specifications and noise issues.
An initial report has been published which identifies a number of ways to reduce the negative consequences for communities on the northern part of HS2’s preferred route.
This work is continuing and it is being informed by the points made to the Secretary of State during his visits to that route last month. So input from local communities is already having a real impact on HS2’s work.
During the summer, Philip launched an Exceptional Hardship Scheme to assist those with the most urgent need to sell their properties.
But he has also made it very clear that if a decision is taken to go ahead and a final route is confirmed, we will put measures in place to manage blight which go well beyond the current statutory requirements.
We believe that is essential if we are to achieve a successful and fair outcome in relation to high speed rail.
I would now like to set out the process going forward.
The immediate next step is that we intend to announce the package for consultation including a preferred route between London and the west Midlands later in the year.
The public consultation will then commence early next year.
We intend it to be a thorough and inclusive consultation.
Four of the most important issues it will cover are as follows:
First, the principle of whether new high speed rail lines should be built;
Secondly, the broad corridor for a new line;
Thirdly, the detailed route.
Fourthly, the approach to blight and how best to assist those whose properties are negatively affected by the proposals.
Let me take this opportunity to repeat what I have said again and again on this.
This is not a done deal.
The consultation is an absolutely crucial part of the decision-making process.
You can make a difference.
You can shape the outcome of this process and the decisions that will ultimately be made.
As the Secretary of State has said during his HS2 visits, he is keen for those affected to engage extensively on all questions under consideration.
So the consultation period will certainly be longer than the period generally recommended by the Cabinet Office guidance.
We expect it to last up to 5 months or thereabouts.
And we intend to reach out pro-actively to the communities affected… rather than just waiting for the responses to come to us.
So HS2 representatives will be going out into your communities with road shows and seminars to enable people to find out more about the project and talk directly to the engineers, economists and others who are working on it.
Once the consultation is completed, it will take time to collate and analyse the thousands of responses that we expect to receive.
But our aim is to be in a position to announce the government’s preferred strategy, and the route of an initial line if we choose to go ahead, by the end of 2011.
The next stage would be preparation of a hybrid bill.
This would involve developing the full engineering design and environmental assessment as well as drafting legislation.
We would also contact those affected to provide them with a further important opportunity to have their say during parliamentary scrutiny of the bill.
Our estimate is that the hybrid bill process would begin in late 2013.
Our objective is to achieve royal assent before the end of this parliament and to begin enabling works shortly thereafter.
I know that I’m unlikely to be able to convince most of you on the merits of high speed rail but I firmly believe that it has the potential to provide us with a once in a generation chance to transform the social and economic geography of this country.
The question we have to grapple with is how to deliver these benefits without imposing an unacceptable cost on the local communities directly affected by the new network.
If we here work together I believe we will be able to do that.
I believe we can find the right way forward and reach the right decisions - decisions which are fair to the communities represented at this meeting today.