Back in October, when Patrick McLouglin, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Transport told Conservative Party Conference that he wanted to ‘fast track’ HS2 and that the plans for Stage 2 (the Y route to Manchester and Leeds and the spur link to Heathrow) of the scheme would be announced by the end of the year, three dates sprang to mind.
The most obvious, looking at past form for the DfT and HS2 Ltd was December 20th, which as the day Parliament breaks up for Christmas the very last date which would be available to them. The other two days we had in mind were December 3rd and December 11th, which had been scheduled as the first and last days of the Judicial Reviews into HS2. It seemed that from Governments point of view one of these days could have been used to deflect any interest in the legal cases, and attempt to try and push HS2 as a ‘good news story’, lining up the usual suspects with vested interests ready to say it is a great idea.
As things transpired, Chancellor George Osborne used the Autumn Statement to not only delay this announcement, but bury the delay whilst he was at it under the weight of his ‘mini budget’. However, it has turned out since then that December 11th was set to be the date of the announcement, so the question is why the delay?
We had always been of the opinion that the Government were being a bit silly in the idea that they had planned to announce the Stage 2 route before a ruling on the Judicial Reviews, as they might have looked a little foolish if one day they were trumpeting their plans and then within a month they were deemed to have acted illegally. Whilst it is suspected that this was the reason for the delay, it is by no means certain, all that seems is certain is that George Osborne didn’t just make the announcement, but the Treasury made the decision to delay.
What has to be remembered of course is that the barristers defending the decisions surrounding HS2 in court, whilst reported as acting for the Department for Transport, actually work for the Treasury. Like with the preparations for defending (and then conceding) the case brought by Virgin over the West Coast Mainline franchise farce, it is likely that preparations for the legal challenges were the first time that anyone in Government actually tried to properly analyse the justifications for HS2, which we suspect will have shown that they fall well short.
Of course all of this is speculative, there may well be other answers for the delay, and it may well be that an announcement on the Y route is made before the rulings on the legal challenges which are expected in mid-January. But, given that the main plank of defence from Government in court was that all that has happened so far was around policy and ‘no decision on HS2 has yet been made’, it could simply have been felt that announcing Stage 2 on the day the court case was planned to conclude, but a month before any ruling, could just have weakened that defence.