This was originally published in the Huffington Post:
The rationale for the Conservative Government continuing to push through HS2, the proposed high speed rail link, can easily be summed up by these immortal words from Blackadder Goes Forth:
“If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.”
The complete shredding of the proposals by the National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee, Treasury Select Committee and Lords Economic Affairs Committee have not mattered, neither has public polling consistently coming out against the project, whilst escalating costs have too been nothing to worry about. Secret Government reports every six months that say the project is in danger of failing, who cares? All of these things have been seen as minor annoyances, because there has been a political consensus for HS2. At least there has been until now.
While the ink was still drying on the election results, SNP noses were put out of joint by a leaked report saying there is no business case for extending HS2 to Scotland. With the UK Government saying there is no chance of Scotland, or indeed Wales, getting their fall-back position of Barnett Consequentials as HS2 is supposedly clearly a ‘UK-wide project’, the SNP are unlikely to vote for HS2 when it comes back to the commons for third reading.
More of a headache for the Tories is the opinion of the Labour Leadership candidates. Last year Jeremy Corbyn voted against HS2, most likely as he knew it would only benefit the richest in society and is being pushed by those with vested interests. Andy Burnham has now joined him in questioning the need for HS2. Though Yvette Cooper might remind him that, when her husband Ed Balls asked the same question in 2013, he was promptly sat on by a handful of powerful council leaders screaming ‘My Precious’.
However, the recent booting into the long grass of electrification projects in the North and Midlands may be a game-changer. Final Labour hopeful and Leicester MP, Liz Kendall, may want to take note that the day Midland Mainline electrification was shelved, the Mayor of Leicester and the Leader of the County Council, made it clear they had been willing to tolerate HS2 as long as they were getting own their slice of the pie, but not now they are not.
Up until now, when told that the money earmarked for HS2 should go on other rail projects, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has been able to say
“It is not a case of either/or, we are doing both!”
But that stock answer has been washed away as easily as the tracks at Dawlish, and it’s surely going to get worse. So far, Network Rail have only been told to down tools projects they were already working on. Projects still on the drawing board, like the rest of the ‘electric spine’ and the Welsh Valleys projects, must be next in the firing line, unless by some miracle they have got cheaper.
The rhetoric of ‘Rebalancing the Economy’, whether that be in creating a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ or a ‘Midlands Engine’, seems rather hollow when projects which were already underway are halted due to going over budget, whilst HS2, which all the evidence shows will act as an economic electromagnet for London, is full steam ahead. All this can only raise one obvious question; If all these rail projects are over-budget, what about HS2 which is still being worked out on 2011 prices, and is due to cost more than all those other projects combined?
Government say they have got a grip of costs, as HS2 Ltd Chairman Sir David Higgins got the Olympics in on budget, hoping we forget ‘that’ budget was four times greater than the original one. When Higgins was brought in, it was heralded that he would cut the cost of HS2, but instead he lopped off the link to HS1 and the Channel Tunnel without saving a penny.
The Network Rail farce has forced Higgins into a PR offensive, first bemoaning the ‘unjust’ policy he endorsed while in charge of Network Rail, to give Northern England hand-me-down trains in The Guardian. He followed this up by hoping readers of the BBC website would believe that when he was in charge of our railways, there was absolutely no sign things were going wrong, and there was no question that he simply got out while the going was good.
Higgins pleading “Not me Guv!” is simply impossible to swallow. Just two months into the job, his replacement Mark Carne admitted the Great Western project was already over budget. A month later Network Rail told the Transport Select Committee they could not have an “absolute, categorical confirmation” that the now ‘paused’ electrification of the Trans-Pennine route from Manchester to York would go ahead, due to rising costs which were already evident at the time.
So last week, Lord Adonis, who came up with the HS2 plans in the first place, was appointed to the board of HS2 Ltd. This is clearly not to try and pick off dissenting Lords and Labour Leadership candidates, no of course not! Echoing what McLoughlin said after the election, his first statement could have come from General Melchett, claiming that all the arguments about HS2 are now over, simply it seems because he says they are.
After all, why else would HS2 Ltd need to appoint a former Blair spin doctor to a key post at this time?