One of the more surprising statements regarding HS2 and the General Election was made by Alex Salmond a couple of weeks ago on Sky News, when he said that part of conditional support for any Labour minority Government would be that building of HS2 should start in Scotland. The thing is, this may not be such a difficult concept for some in Labour to accept.
The SNP have tried to stoke things up on the subject this week, suggesting that a report about the feasibility of extending HS2 to Scotland has been buried. Given the burial of other reports on HS2 such as a multitude of them which still sit on the shelves at the Major Projects Authority, and even the fact that the final route for Phase 2 which was expected over a year ago, it is no great shock that a report about extending HS2 to Scotland has failed to surface.
The only oddity is that one might have thought that, if the report said anything good of course, that it may have been wheeled out in a fanfare about what the UK can achieve together, before the referendum on independence last year. Whilst it is equally likely this didn’t happen due to it being yet another deadline HS2 Ltd missed, it could quite as easily be because the report concludes that the benefit cost ratio for extending HS2 to Scotland means it isn’t worth it, and of course a big unanswered question would be do you go East Coast, West Coast, or both?
You have to remember, that the infamous KMPG report singled out many areas of Scotland as big economic losers from HS2, and with even the most optimistic proposal for HS2 only ever getting as far as the Central Belt, you could not imagine Aberdeen ever moving away from being the biggest economic loser in Britain* if HS2 went ahead.
However, you have to ask the question whether or not being seen to be over the SNP barrel might suit some in Labour on the issue of HS2. Whilst there is undeniable disquiet about HS2 in Conservative ranks, this has never reached the level it has within Labour, with the most notable HS2 sceptic being Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls.
Before George Osborne and Andrew Adonis got council leaders for the North of England to gang up on him at Labour Conference in 2013, the question Balls wanted his party to ask was whether HS2 was the best way to spend £50bn. Last week, Labour Leader Ed Miliband was forced to underline the party’s support for HS2 after Balls again had questioned the value of HS2, or at least the second phase, asking whether better connectivity in the North of England should be prioritised ahead of it.
So the question is, from the point of view of Mr Balls, would not being ‘forced by the SNP’ to switch to starting HS2 in Scotland and working down be a bad thing? With there being no plans on paper at this point, the entire process would be rewound about six or seven years right back to square one, meaning any spending on construction would be kicked very much into the long grass of the Government after next, which some might say is exactly what Balls needs to fund his spending plans…….
*Not the UK, as for reasons best known to themselves, KPMG forgot that Northern Ireland exists, so no data was compiled on the effects there.