One day a couple of years ago, the chair of the HS2 Phase 1 Hybrid Bill committee Robert (now Sir Robert) Syms perfectly summed up exactly how MPs had regarded HS2. One of the advocates from HS2 Ltd had been singing the praises of the scheme, laying claim to all the wonderful things it was going to do, ending with something along of the lines of “Which is of course why MPs voted in favour of HS2 is such large numbers.”
Syms immediately took to opportunity to correct him on his falsely-held impression that MPs actually think about what they are voting for, much less understand it by butting in: “Really? I thought we all voted for it because we were whipped to!”
In that one sentence Syms had summarised the problem with trying to tell most MPs any of the multitude of reasons why HS2 is a bad thing; their party says they are in favour, and that is all they need to know. For the greater part our democracy – not just on the subject of HS2, but any subject – is run by a paraphrasing of the Little Britain sketch: “Party says no”!
There have been some notable exceptions, with the one we have liked to quote over the years being Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, who said he had been in favour of HS2, but had seen through the spin and was a great believer in evidence-based policy. Now another, sadly just the one has seen the light in the form of Sir Kevin Barron. This is what he had to say in the Phase 2a debate on 30th January:
“I supported HS2 for many years. I truly believed that it would help to bridge the divide between the north and London in the south. I even defended the astonishing cost to my constituents, as I thought that it would benefit people in my constituency. However, I now believe that the case has become flaky at best, owing to a number of factors.”
“A Public Accounts Committee report raised a number of serious issues. It said there was a “serious risk of fraud, corruption and error” due to a combination of poor financial controls and other systems. It highlighted the fact that HS2 was set up eight years ago with substantial Government backing yet still shows a lack of organisational maturity. Given the huge budget that HS2 has been provided with, this is truly concerning.”
“The Government currently say HS2 will cost £55.7 billion to build. The costs originally started at £32.7 billion in 2010 and were last updated in 2015. Yet the National Audit Office stated in 2016 that HS2 was running £7 billion over-budget, which is not contested by HS2. This should put the official cost at £63 billion. I believe we can do so much more with this money, in particular on the electrification that this Government scrapped.”
“Most business leaders believe that if the north is to thrive the links between northern cities need to be improved, not just by having another route to London. Another Public Accounts Committee report says that HS2 made £1.6 million of unauthorised payments to staff during 2016-17; that is not a massive amount of money, but it is a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money. The report states that the unauthorised schemes proceeded due to weak internal processes and that there is no means for these sums to be recovered. It should concern us all that we have an organisation spending public money in such a way and that those sums cannot be recovered.”
“Both the Department and HS2 need to address these issues as a matter of urgency, and I believe that the relationship between the Department for Transport and HS2 was an unhealthy one and the necessary checks and balances were not in place. I do not think they are now either, but I will not raise issues that concern me at a local level because we are discussing a different part of the plan.”
“With all this in mind, I no longer believe that HS2 is likely to fulfil the aims it was designed to achieve. I will therefore vote for the amendment declining to give the Bill a Second Reading. I no longer have confidence in HS2 Ltd or the Government’s ability to oversee it.”
For many years I have supported HS2 as I truly believed that it would help bridge the divide between South Yorkshire and London. I no longer have confidence in HS2 or the Government to fulfil that aim.
Therefore I will be voting against the HS2 bill this evening. pic.twitter.com/IJoFZDOAMt
— Kevin Barron MP (@KevinBarronMP) January 30, 2018