A variation of this article was first published as The choice for Labour: Senseless megaprojects or jobs? by Mike Geddes on HS2, the Regional Impact.
Writing in the Guardian recently, two Labour MPs try to make the case for the Trident nuclear submarine programme by arguing that abandoning it would do major damage to Britain’s manufacturing base, putting at risk more than 11,000 jobs. They estimate the cost of renewing Trident at up to £17bn.
By chance, this is the same cost as Phase 1 of another megaproject supported by Labour, HS2, though if we add together Phases 1 and 2 of HS2 (the ‘Y’ from London to Manchester and Leeds) the full cost is at least £34bn. The government estimates this will ‘create’ 100, 000 jobs (though in practice many of these will not be new but relocated near HS2 stations from elsewhere).
The second similarity between these two megaprojects is that neither serves a social function which is remotely a priority, especially in today’s austerity conditions. Trident’s independent nuclear deterrent confronts a non-existent external military threat. HS2 cuts a bit off journey times between a few major cities but does nothing to deal with the day to day transport needs of the mass of the population, and is likely to worsen, not reduce, north-south disparities.
The third similarity between HS2 and Trident is that there are better alternatives. Even the Labour MPS who support Trident recognise that it would be possible to save money by building greater numbers of smaller submarines and smaller weapons and warheads to go in them. In the case of HS2, improving the existing rail network would deal with current capacity problems much quicker and more cheaply.
So what about jobs? The final similarity between Trident and HS2 is that they are both ludicrously expensive in terms of job creation. If HS2 really were to create 100,000 jobs, as the government suggests, at a cost of £34bn, this amounts to £340,000 per job. Trident’s 11,000 jobs for £17bn come at an eye-watering £1.5m each! In comparison, a normal cost per job figure for employment created through regeneration projects would be £32,000. On this basis, HS2’s £34bn and Trident’s £17bn would together produce over 1.5m jobs in total.
So what do our politicians really want? It is easy to see why an MP with the Barrow shipyard in his constituency would support Trident, just like MPs and councillors in the (very few) cities which could benefit from HS2. But surely it is time to look beyond such localised interests, and ditch these white elephant megaprojects and spend the money saved in ways which are far more useful and would create far more jobs – in local transport, urban regeneration, energy infrastructure, affordable housing and green technologies?