Monday, 23 September 2013

HS2 needs an alternative, not just scrapping

There is an ever-so-slim danger the Labour Party might soon have a firm policy to defend as Shadow Chancellor Ed
Balls gave the clearest indication yet the opposition are preparing to dump their support for HighSpeed 2 (HS2). 
In his conference speech, the Labour bruiser repeated his line that there would be no ‘blank cheque’ for the inevitably controversial scheme. 

And he said:

‘The question is – not just whether a new high speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.’

As someone who fails to be convinced by the pro-HS2 arguments I should be pleased, but alarm bells are ringing in my head that simply scrapping the scheme – which has already cost hundreds of millions of pounds without so much as a piece of ballast being put into place – will simply result in lethargy filling the vacuum. HS2 needs to be replaced with a coherent, well-argued, realistic vision of Britain’s rail network, not scrapped in favour of our traditional shambolic, day-to-day, knee-jerk, panicky, management which has typified much of Britain’s transport policy for so many years.

Even the most maniacal supporters of HS2 – and on Twitter there are inevitably some CAPITAL LETTER SHOUTING fanatics who clearly weren’t allowed into debating societies – must accept the case for HS2 has not been won. 

Yes, capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is an issue but alternatives have not been exhaustively sought. The business case is flimsy, the dangers of sucking money from the regions into London – rather than the other way round – are just ignored, and the passenger number predictions are likely to be exaggerated, much as HS1’s were.

The problem is frequently, those arguing the strongest for HS2 are the ones who have the most financially to gain from the train line; their assertions cannot simply be taken at face value.

The issue of vested interests undermined KPMG’s report when it was released a fortnight or so ago. It was commissioned by HS2; obviously it would focus on the positives. And it had some glaring omissions as highlighted by Robert Peston here. He wrote that:

‘….many of the gains to the regions that KPMG calculates are based on the reasonable notion that companies will be established in places where transport links are better. But it has taken no account of whether those regions actually contain available land to site new or biggest companies or have people with relevant skills to employ.’

He added, damningly, that KPMG was ‘ignoring one of the fundamental causes of lacklustre growth in many parts of the UK, which is a shortage of skilled labour and of easily and readily available land’.

It's too late for the coalition government to abandon it as too much capital, political and other kinds, has been invested. And while this may just be another politician trying to keep all people happy all the time, with its eye-wateringly hefty price tag,  it is very easy to see why Ed Balls and senior Labour figures might want to ditch the whole plan. Suddenly, they would have made huge savings and could plot to redirect the money into their pet projects. But the whole rail network could lose undoubtedly needed investment and suffer as a consequence.

Already, a Labour source has indicated that while Balls is committed in principle to the rail link, he has no alternative route in mind. No mention of more east-west connections, more electrification, or countrywide fast broadband provision to negate the need to travel at all. 

The most convincing and articulate champion of HS2 is Andrew Adonis. The project's architect, he is a genuine train enthusiast. As transport secretary he took the radical step of taking trains around the country, to actually experience what train travellers had to put up with. In his August New Statesman article he was scathing about the management failures already besetting the project, bemoaning the complete lack of legislation for even the first phase of the line to Birmingham after three years of coalition government. He has urged for the creation of an HS2 minister to get a semblance of coherence and control on the project. Neither the coalition or the opposition has responded to his pleas and created such a role.

We are yet to hear what he makes of Labour's latest prevarication but I imagine it would a blend of annoyance, anger and disappointment.  If HS2 does get ditched, it will need someone like him to pick up the pieces and forge an alternate vision.


We have now heard what Andrew Adonis has to say about Balls' HS2 threat. Speaking at  fringe event in Brighton, he said: 

'I'm very mindful of HS2 and where we are on this too. We cannot as a party preach long-termism and not practise it ourselves. We have got to be very clear about that.
We are the party that started HS2. I published the plan three years ago. We set the whole thing our, we set out the rationale, including capacity.
'We went through the whole thing. We did a major job of work.
'You have got to in politics, you cannot say that your principles and all that apply to other people but they don't apply to you when short term political advantage might rear its head. We have got to stick with this. It's very important.'

And, bitterly, he told the New Statesman the only thing the coalition had done 'since coming to office is add £10bn to it'.

He's clearly still flying the flag.

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