The public should be given the right to directly decide about the fate of the controversial HS2 rail link designed to connect London with the north, former attorney general Dominic Grieve has said.
The Tory MP for Beaconsfield and former attorney general spoke during a second reading debate regarding a Bill proposed by another conservative, Christopher Chope, requiring the UK government to hold a referendum on the £50bn scheme.
"One of the features which has been chucked at those MPs who have raised a whisper of protest at whether this scheme is a desirable one is, as they largely represent constituents who may be directly and adversely affected by it, their representations should be treated in some ways diminished as a consequence,” Grieve said during the debate.
"It is abundantly plain there are real issues of doubt that must creep in as to whether in fact this project justifies the expenditure.”
The proponents of the Bill believe it would secure a 'no' vote in the HS2 decision-making process. Grieve suggested the referendum could also help to assess what the value of compensation packages offered to those most affected by the scheme should be.
"It would provide a very telling way of indicating whether people think the expenditure of this enormous sum of money is in fact the best way of building better infrastructure for this country in future," Grieve said.
"The compensation package we seem to be creating... is frankly pretty woeful. It compares very badly with the sort of packages produced in, for example, France,” he remarked.
Christopher Chope, who put the Bill forward, said it would allow people to express their opinion on what is one of the largest publicly funded infrastructure projects in the UK.
Labour's Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) said most people in the UK were against HS2, with opinion polls showing all genders, age groups and social classes do not want the railway.
Instead of pushing forward with the HS2 and its debatable benefits, he suggested, the government should focus on improving connections between the cities in the north by, for example, prioritising the HS3 project.
"The time taken to go from York to Manchester or Leeds to Liverpool is a disgrace and they are talking now about High Speed 3, well I think there would be a bit more support for High Speed 3 if High Speed 3 became High Speed 2,” Dobson said.
"But even in the north of England there are a lot of local services that need to be improved as well as the inter-connections between the big cities."
The Bill was dismissed by both the government and opposition front benches.
Shadow transport minister Lilian Greenwood said: "The truth is this House has already imposed tighter spending controls on HS2. I submitted an amendment to the preparation act, and it was accepted by the House, that introduced a duty on the government to declare any overspend both against the annual and the total budget.
"We need a laser-like focus on bringing down the project's cost – there cannot be a blank cheque for this or any other project.
Transport Minister John Hayes said Chope's proposal was unnecessary.
He said: "You are suggesting a national referendum where people, for example, in Northern Ireland would have a vote. You are doing so not because they are affected directly but because of the cost.
"It would be unprecedented and in my judgment for that reason would be ill-judged. Once we open up that hornet's nest, I see the ugly prospect of plebiscites on every kind and type of subject.
"There are those who might welcome that but I, as a confident exponent of the role of this House, would not accept that."
Chope chose to withdraw his Bill rather than press it to a vote.