15 June 2022

The folly of ‘getting HS2 done’

By

It is increasingly hard to tell when this government is winding us up on purpose versus when it’s doing so by accident – not least because it’s often all but impossible to work out what this government is actually trying to do.

After a year dominated by talk of ‘levelling up’, the new debate is all about tax cuts – and yet the Government has increased taxes to their highest level in decades, with absolutely no realistic hope of cutting them anything like as much as they’ve already hiked them.

Similarly, a government which threw its whole weight behind a COP26 green triumph has now subsidised new fossil fuel investment just as it withdraws subsidies on new green cars. The Conservative and Unionist party has in the last week not only threatened the Church of England, but also the Crown itself. To refer to the Government as flailing would be the understatement of the century.

The problem is this chaotic approach now extends to executing projects that have already been agreed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the construction of the HS2 railway line. The controversial political choice has already been made – the line will be built, albeit at a cost made all the more astronomical by the decision to tunnel through many Conservative shire constituencies, rather than go overground.

The big picture decision has been made, and tens of billions of pounds of funding committed. But inexplicably, ministers are now nickel and diming the project in ways that fundamentally undermine its whole purpose – meaning they will end up dismaying the project’s advocates and giving added grist to the mill of HS2’s many critics.

HS2’s early PR was horribly done. The line was sold as a way of transporting people to and from London slightly more quickly. This is, in reality, a mere side effect of its construction. The real purpose of HS2 is to add new capacity to the railway network – to prevent the already horribly overcrowded East and West Coast Main Lines becoming unusably busy.

But that’s only half of the real intended benefit: the second half is the one that is key to levelling up – once HS2 as originally conceived was built, the existing East and West Coast Main Lines would have been freed up to enable far more northern intercity services to use those routes, now that high speed cross-country trains weren’t on them.

This was the real benefit to Scotland and northern England from the project – and it had already been hugely damaged by the insanely short-sighted decision to scrap the Leeds line of HS2, which dramatically restricted its usefulness.

But last week the Government went further still, scrapping a northern West Coast Mainline connection to HS2, at Golcar, with a vague promise to look into some unspecified other one. This ‘saves’ £2.9 billion, but means there will be no HS2 services between Edinburgh and London, no HS2 services between Birmingham and Scotland, and only one Glasgow-London HS2 service per hour.

This isn’t a PR line put out by rail advocates or even by HS2 itself – it is the Department of Transport’s very own analysis. The document goes further: with the Golcar connection, the economic benefits of HS2 would total £13.7 billion. Without it, those benefits drop to £7.4 billion. To save £2.9bn, the government is squandering £6.4bn, with those losses being felt mostly by the north. For a government supposedly committed to taxpayer value and regional rebalancing, it’s a bafflingly terrible decision.

It is hard to tell whether this is the result of a certain Brexit-related mindset or its opposite. You could argue that it’s a desire to appease everyone – HS2 critics and advocates alike – that pleases no-one, or that it’s a desire to ‘get HS2 done’ without caring about what that means. Which of those is the Brexit mindset is an open question – but the harms of a government without tether remain all too apparent.

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James Ball is Global Editor at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.