This week the House of Commons finalises its scrutiny of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill which authorises expenditure on purchasing land and other preparations for starting work on HS2.
The architect of this major development was Lord Adonis, Labour’s Transport Secretary in 2009. The Coalition took over the project in 2010 despite opposition within its own ranks. Speaking at this year’s Labour Conference, Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, poured cold water on it but he is opposed by other Labour leaders at Westminster and in northern local authorities.
The rationale for HS2 is to modernise and ease congestion on Britain’s railways, link our eight largest cities with trains capable of travelling at 250 mph, generating economic growth and creating jobs. The aim is to have at least the first stage operational by 2026 and by 2033 to have doubled the number of trains in and out of London from 13/14 to 30 an hour. The cost is estimated as £42.6 billion, including a contingency of £14 billion, plus a further £7.5 billion for new high speed rolling stock. Ed Balls says the money might be better spent on schools or hospitals but it would be raised by borrowing spread over 15 years and the Treasury estimates that for every pound spent on HS2 at least £2.30 will be earned from fares, so that it will pay for itself in the long run.
Rail use has increased steadily at 5% per year and our railways are badly congested with too few seats on major services at peak times. Our motorways are also congested, with far too many lorries carrying goods and materials that could be moved by rail. Rapid rail services between major cities could also reduce the demand for domestic flights with their environmental impact. Just as important are the gains for northern Britain. More than half of the economic growth since 2007 has been in London and the South East. David Prout, who heads up HS2, argues that without it the north could decline into a ‘rust belt’. What matters is that local politicians across the north agree with him.
The proposed route for HS2 crosses a number of rural Conservative held constituencies, which explains their ‘not in my backyard’ opposition. Nonetheless, the economy needs major infrastructural investment and the Chancellor remains committed to HS2. The Liberal Democrats strongly support it but Labour has only a one-line whip for this debate that means their MPs might not be there for the final vote. Some Labour front benchers follow the Balls line and Ed Miliband appears uncertain as to which way to lead, attracting a dismissive accusation of weakness from David Cameron at P.M. Questions on Wednesday. Given the life-span of the project it is essential that it has cross-party backing. Investors will need confidence that any change of Government will not lead to cancellation.
Is HS2 an issue where the common good should over-rule personal and party interests? Which is it, red Light or green?