3 September 2018

Let’s put the brakes on HS2 and invest our transport budget properly

By James Roberts

Britain is pretty good at quite a few things. Royal weddings. Country pubs. Red uniforms. Queuing. But one thing we used to be very good at – and known around the world for – was big infrastructure. Bridges, boats, tunnels, road and rail. You name it, we engineered and built it.

But British infrastructure seems to have lost its spark since the days of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Bazalgette. Gone, even, are the days of Tomorrow’s World innovation in getting from A to B. The decision on the third runway at Heathrow has taken decades, and China is planning on building literally hundreds more airports by the time it is done, even if work in London starts today. And just last week, it was announced that Crossrail is going to be delayed by at least eight months.

On the micro level, potholes have proliferated on our streets and small, “unsexy” projects linking together the sinews and ligaments of the road network have stalled. The electrification of rail routes have been indefinitely halted, and renovations on major railway stations are only just coming online after decades of underinvestment from the dark days of nationalisation.

Nothing even comes in on time or on budget. And nothing encapsulates that more than the planned High Speed Rail 2.

HS2 was supposed to be the next big thing. Hundreds of regular London-to-Birmingham commuters would get back literally some minutes of wasted travel time. Or if speed wasn’t as good as promised, then at least it would help with capacity. Or innovation. Or… the excuses came more regularly than most trains manage to.

As it turned out, these excuses were as ridiculous as they sound. Not many people travel from Euston to the Bullring for their weekly shop, or find themselves unable to work on the train using their smart phone. Ministers have tried their best to improve things, but the HS2 concept was out-of-date before the blueprints were even drawn up.

On the other hand, plenty of people still use our roads, rail, buses, bikes and airports every day. They rely on affordable, efficient and comfortable infrastructure. Taxpayers are demanding the service they pay through the nose for. Commuters deserve forward-thinking and proportionate transport spending, drawing on all the innovation and creativity we were known for, and that is now coming down the track, if you’ll pardon the pun.

That’s why this week the TaxPayers’ Alliance is launching the Great British Transport Competition. If we scrap HS2, based on the government’s own figures, we could free up more than £50 billion of transport funding. Imagine all the planes, trains and automobile improvements we could get for that kind of money. And that’s without factoring in the extra billions that we have, for years, predicted that HS2 is likely to cost much more than the official estimates.

So we are asking people from around the country to get in touch and tell us what they would like to see that money spent on. From a simple bus shelter upgrade to a whopping new airport, we want to hear them all. No project is too big or two small, in any and all parts of the UK. If it’s sensible, deliverable, economically beneficial and good value for money, it’s already a better idea than HS2.

The competition will be open until Friday 26th October and the winners will be judged by an expert panel, including qualified surveyors, engineers and transport industry experts. The winning bids will be professionally costed and packaged ready to go as the true “People’s alternative to HS2”.

We have a once a lifetime opportunity to invest a lot of money to make transport better, cheaper and ready for the future. If we are going to spend £50 billion of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash on infrastructure, we had better spend it well, on projects people actually want.

James Roberts is Political Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.