27 January 2023

The HS2 farrago is an object lesson in British stagnation


The suggestion that HS2 may not even reach central London is an absurdity perfectly designed to irritate both the project’s supporters and opponents. If an inter-city line between the North and London Euston doesn’t even get to Euston then why waste billions more despoiling the countryside to build it?

Jeremy Hunt has already poured cold water on The Sun’s report – although the Mandy Rice-Davies rule applies. But such stories aren’t that surprising, given the Government has already order a cost-cutting review into the project. A £100bn-plus bill that had already tripled has been further bloated by inflation. A quarter of the contingency fund has already been spent; the London-Birmingham leg alone could cost £60bn.

Naturally, this news has been welcomed by the many Tory MPs who never wanted HS2 in the first place. For many of the line’s opponents, getting from Birmingham to London 30 minutes quicker was always a weak justification for spending such colossal sums. For MPs like Greg Smith, whose Buckingham seat is already facing disruption, this latest news is grist to the mill.

I have every sympathy with Smith, not least because my father grew up in the area. To see his home village of Wendover lose houses, woodland and green spaces to the bulldozers is painful. But even with that personal loss – and the spiralling costs – I can grudgingly admit that a case for HS2 remains. 

That’s because opposition to the project of the Escape from Birmingham variety is based on a misinterpretation of what the line is for, or why it is necessary. The key point, never made clearly enough by ministers, is that HS2 is mainly about capacity, not speed. 

Between 1997 and 2019, the number of journeys on the West Coast Mainline trebled. On both this line and the East Coast Mainline, there is insufficient capacity to satisfy the needs of both passenger and freight operators. Our Victorian railway infrastructure is not designed for the demands of the third Carolean age.

But, the cry goes up, what about Covid? In the age of Zoom, who needs nineteenth-century technology? Well, it’s true that rail use is still only 70-80% of what it was pre-pandemic. The problem is that the network is still running over capacity – and claims homeworking has made rail obsolete are hard to square with governmental efforts to encourage workers back into the office.

There is, however, a different case for the project that goes beyond debates about spiralling costs, journey times, and trying to guess who will be ‘WFH’ in 2040. That is a mission which, we are told, remains close to the Government’s heart: levelling-up. Prevaricating over HS2 sends a clear signal to the Red Wall that the Conservatives were never serious about tackling regional inequality.

To return to the point about capacity, one of the key reasons for building a new intercity line was to free up more space for other trains in the Midlands and northern England. Unfortunately, this vision has already been heavily diluted by the decision to cancel connections like that at Leeds. The service will no longer regularly connect London and Birmingham with Scotland, either. 

From a cost perspective, the case for scaling back is easy. HS2 is already way over budget, with austerity again raising its ugly head, anything that can be done to make the project cheaper will be welcomed. The Government worries that it has already sunk too much in to cancel it wholesale; if it can at least suggest it will reach Birmingham, and appease Andy Street, it can pat itself on the back.

But reversing decades of divergence between North and South was never going to come cheap. Closing that gap is a task comparable to that of equalising the living standards of West and East Germany. That cost the equivalent of £71bn a year between 1990 and 2014 – a lot more than the paltry £2bn of Levelling Up money the Government dispersed last week.

To see this project solely through the lens of cost is to repeat the mistake of the dreaded Dr Beeching. In 2019, the Conservatives made a great deal of their commitment to reversing some of his cuts to regional branch lines. And, in fairness, there have been some successes, such as the reopening of a regular service between Okehampton and Exeter for the first time in 50 years. 

Many MPs would want to see HS2 scrapped, with the money ploughed into similar projects. That ignores that doing so will be just as much of a long-term project – and just as costly. Even then, HS2 is designed to revive the capacity that the railways lost with the closure of the Great Central Main Line. Linking up the North with various little lines cannot be done without sorting that big one.

Of course, we could do both if the Government had more money and more political will. But when it gives in to the Nimbys over projects like the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Arc’ – which would both boost GDP and revive the so-called Varsity Line – it is unsurprising that our growth rate remain appalling.

Meanwhile, an ever more cash-strapped government is forced into a doom loop of cost-cutting, however nonsensical and damaging to our long-term prospects. And no matter how many funds spring from Whitehall, and how much we argue over divvying them up, the blunt truth is that ‘Levelling-up’ will remain a fantasy as long as our economy continues to stagnate. And stagnate it will, because of the unwillingness of the Government and MPs to make hard choices over infrastructure and housing.

That is really the biggest takeaway from the whole HS2 farrago. That it has taken so very, very long to even get started on the kind of infrastructure other advanced economies built decades ago. And it’s the same wherever you look – be it HS2, a third runway at Heathrow, our failure to build a new reservoir in since the 1990s or our endless bunfights about putting new homes anywhere people actually want to live.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

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