Newspapers from both sides of the political spectrum have come together recently in slamming HS2, reporting that it will be horribly over budget, multiple years late, and have almost no business case. Surely with this wealth of reports, expert advice and evidence that HS2 is destined to be an expensive failure the government couldn’t go ahead with such a project?
Well actually, they can, because once again politics is affecting the delivery of UK infrastructure and the relationship is unhealthy.
First, a background on HS2, the high speed railway, linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. (or as we can assume what Theresa May calls it- “at least this one’s not Brexit”) is the project that was first proposed in 2009 by the Labour government, but the go ahead for the project was given in 2012 under the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition.
At the same time, then-Chancellor George Osborne was visiting factories and saying the words ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as often as possible, and what better way to give those words actual meaning than to support them with a high speed rail project which would become the backbone of the Northern Powerhouse scheme; the key piece of infrastructure that would link the north to the south-west, and begin to erode the economic divide between the regions.
The numbers made for good reading at first – Transport for Greater Manchester estimated that by 2033 HS2 could provide up to 40,000 jobs in Central Manchester alone, along with 13,000 new homes and a million square meters of commercial developments in the region. Across the whole of the North of England, the estimates were that 850,000 jobs could be available by 2050.
HS2 seemed to be the perfect buzzword to prove to the electorate in the North that they were not being abandoned, and so HS2 suddenly gained a special holy position in the eyes of the government – as the modern project which would bring prosperity for the North, and, more importantly, secure those all important Northern voters who now thought that the Tory government actually did care about them.
Then the problems with HS2 began. The projected cost of £30 billion quickly rose to £42 billion, then £56 billion, and more cost increases are expected. That sure is a lot of money for a government imposing austerity measures in other areas. In fact, the Institute of Economic Affairs’ most recent estimate places the final cost at over £80 billion, and Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission expects that a further £43 billion will have to be spent on local rail links at each end of the main line to ensure that all the projected benefits will be unlocked. That makes a whopping £123 billion to be spent on HS2, whilst other projects, like electrification of the Trans-Pennine line, with a price tag of £2.8 billion, and a much higher rate of return, have been deemed “too expensive” and “not good value for money.”
But this didn’t make the government back down. The justification for the building of HS2 began to focus less on the economics of the project and more on the connectivity it would produce, on the overcapacity problems it would solve, and on the environmental benefits of taking thousands of polluting cars off the road, whilst still talking of the benefits it would bring to the North.
Then people began to look at high speed rail in other countries and they came to a not so surprising conclusion: rather than benefiting the regions (in the case of HS2 this is the North) it is in fact the city (London) which will benefit. Japan’s Shinkansen (or bullet train if you’re not a geek) takes the workforce from Japan’s secondary cities to work in Tokyo rather than promoting more or higher paying jobs in their own city. Regional connectivity, the very thing HS2 was hoping to promote in the North, has been killed off in Japan with the Shinkansen replacing local trains on some routes. Likewise, the TGV in France increased travel from the Rhone-Alps region to Paris by 114%, whilst travel in the other direction increased by only 54%.
This almost seems obvious when you consider it from a business perspective – why bother going to the trouble of setting up in the North when you can have one centralised London HQ with convenient and fast links to other regions?
So now even the primary business case for HS2 – that it will help the North – is dead in the water, yet the government continues to cling to the idea that capacity increases are needed and that a carbon-neutral railway would be much better for the environment than driving.
And now even those arguments are being undermined – capacity problems can be solved by increasing train length on existing routes or upgrading signaling to allow more trains to run, and with electric cars on the rise, and being predicted to be as cheap to own as a petrol car by 2021, the electricity hungry high speed train will be no more environmentally friendly than an electric vehicle.
Yet still the government clings to HS2 like its a favourite child. It has become tangled up with political objectives and party politics, and HS2 has now reached the point where justification for it must be found at any cost to prevent the government from losing face. Abandoning HS2 seems to involve abandoning the cities that it was intended to serve, and no government could possibly take the political risk which that entails.
Once again, the government is attempting to do what will get them re-elected rather than what is best for the country in the long run.
HS2 is taking valuable funding away from areas like Trans-Pennine rail upgrades and other new transport projects like Crossrail 2. Here in the North we still travel on trains which were meant to be taken out of passenger service over a decade ago, yet the government is playing politics. Replacing a train in Preston isn’t going to be as big of a statement in suggesting that they’re investing in the North as HS2, even if the former is needed much more than the latter.
Once again politics is acting like a plague on UK infrastructure – cutting back on the best value projects and insisting that we must push forward with projects that can no longer be justified other than to make a political statement.
And this is a bad precedent to set right now. Infrastructure projects are only going to get bigger over the next few years. Remember those electric cars which would be cheaper than petrol by 2021? Imagine the scale of building that will be required to ready the national grid for the surge in power use, and to provide all homes with a way to charge their vehicle. Or as migration to cities increases the number of housing projects, sewage projects and mass transit projects that will be needed to cope with the growing population. Investing in the wrong areas for those projects could have devestating consequences to UK society.
Playing politics with infrastructure projects will never end well in the long term for the ordinary people that the government claims to be caring about. It’s time that the government looked past the election and short term political ambitions and worked in a cross-party manner in Parliament to really provide the best value and most needed infrastructure projects that the taxpayer can buy into.
The first step to doing this is to create a precedent that projects like HS2 simply cannot go on. Yes, HS2 was more than just a vanity project when it was first launched, I even admire the ambition of the government back then to embark on such a large scale project, something almost never seen in this country. Back then it may have seemed like the best option, but since new information and research has come to light, and new cost estimates have been made, the case for HS2 is no longer as strong.
A famous quote attributed to Keynes goes; “When the facts change, I change my mind.” The facts around HS2 have changed, yet the government refuses to even acknowledge this, and is sticking to it’s now trashed justifications rather than changing its mind and taking the political risk of making a dreaded U-turn.
It’s time that the government swallowed its pride and showed us that it really does care by stopping HS2, investing in more beneficial projects, and setting a brighter path for future UK infrastructure projects by removing personal and political ambitions from the mix.