Following high-level criticism of HS2 from senior Labour figures such as Alistair Darling, Lord Mandelson and former rail minister Tom Harris in recent months, Ed Balls has given the clearest indication that Labour are considering scrapping the project in his speech to Labour Party Conference on Monday (23rd September 2013). The shadow chancellor told delegates that whilst the party continues to back the idea of a new North-South rail link, HS2 has been completely mismanaged, and that George Osborne and David Cameron are purring their own pride and vanity ahead of what is best value for the taxpayer, before saying that as Chancellor he would not write a blank cheque for the project.
He went on to say:
“The question is not just whether a High Speed Line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country.”
This change is mood music from Labour was immediately welcomed by Stop HS2 campaigners attending the conference in Brighton. Stop HS2 Campaign Manager, Joe Rukin said:
“We are ecstatic that the shadow chancellor is looking serious at the cost of HS2 and whether the project is worth it, opposed to the coalition who seem to be saying, no matter what the cost that we can’t afford not to build it. As the costs of HS2 have gone up, and will continue to go up, Ed Balls is dead right to question whether HS2 is worth it. We have long said that it is only the vanity of politicians which is keeping this white elephant on life support. It has always been the case that there are more sensible ways to spend the sort of money being talked about, and it is irresponsible of Government not to accept this.”
“This year at Labour Conference has been amazing. In 2011, the majority of people we spoke to hadn’t heard of HS2. Last year, before we spoke to them, the majority of people were for HS2. This year it has been clear that the vast majority of those attending Labour Conference agree with us, that it is an insane vanity project which should not go ahead when there are so many other deserving demands on the public purse, and better, cheaper ways of investing in rail capacity which will benefit far more people.”
Stop HS2 Chair, Penny Gaines said
“With the recent increase in the budget for HS2 a lot of people are looking closely at the project, sometimes for the first time. There are so many other possible ways of spending the infrastructure budget without committing the country to spend £50 billion on a single project.
“We have been speaking to a wide range of people at the Labour Party conference, and it is clear that most of the people we speak to are extremely sceptical of HS2. It’s great that the Shadow Cabinet, and Ed Balls in particular, are thinking about HS2 afresh. If the labour leaders listened to the ordinary members they would find wide support for cancelling HS2.
“The sooner this white elephant is cancelled, the sooner we could start looking proper at the infrastructure needs of the country, at the way digital infrastructure is replacing long distance travel and the type of railway that would suit the needs of 21st commuter.”
The relevant part of Mr Balls’ speech was as follows:
“We continue to back the idea of a north-south rail link.
“But under this government the HS2 project has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion. David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project no matter how much the costs spiral up and up.
“They seem willing to put their own pride and vanity above best value for the taxpayer. Maria Eagle and I are clear we will not take this irresponsible approach.
“Let us be clear – in tough times when there is less money around and a big deficit to get down there will be no blank cheque from me as a Labour chancellor for this project or any other project because the question is not just whether a new high speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it’s the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country.”