Over the coming days, a fleet of excited young Tories, many looking very smart in their fathers’ double-breasted suits, will be making their way to Manchester for this year’s Conservative Party Conference. However, there’s a malign serendipity in the fact that Tories are heading up to Manchester at the same time as they are rumoured to be considering axing the faster trains to take them there. Given the centrality of HS2 to the Levelling Up agenda, one imagines they will be even less welcome up North than usual.
Since its announcement by the then-Labour government in 2009, HS2 has been delayed, truncated and disfigured into the Joseph Merrick of national infrastructure projects. As I wrote in The Daily Express this week, what was originally intended to bridge the historic North-South divide is now a bridge to basically nowhere. In 2015, HS2’s connection to Heathrow Airport was axed. The planned eastern stretch between Birmingham and Leeds was scrapped in late 2021 and replaced with localised rail investment. And now, the line may be finishing at Old Oak Common, a somewhat leafy corner of West London most famously the home of HMP Wormwood Scrubs, as opposed to the central, incredibly well-connected Euston Station.
Aside from the extortionate cost, now expected to exceed £100bn, what the HS2 debacle has laid bare is the level of power held by environmentalists and Nimbys when it comes to disrupting potentially vital infrastructure. The project’s Environmental Memorandum is a revealing example of this trend. The document, as Henry Hill explains, sets out an extensive list of requirements which were not in existence when the original costs of the project were estimated and have served only to send costs spiralling.
The other examples of over-zealous regulation specific to HS2 are too numerous to mention. Yet depressingly, the high-speed rail line is only one of a number of projects held to ransom by damaging planning regulations. Take the Rosebank Oilfield, which Andy Mayer wrote about for CapX. This week, the government gave the green light for drilling to take place on the site. In the words of one BBC presenter, this amounted to an ‘act of war against life on earth’. However, the real tragedy of the Rosebank Oilfield is not the negligible environmental impact it may have, but that due to high taxes and growing eco-alarmism, it has taken over 20 years to get to this stage.
As Tom Jones points out, one of the reasons we are now having to rely so heavily on fossil fuels is our failure to embrace nuclear power and other sources of renewable energy. And who are the culprits? You guessed it: a dilapidated planning system which makes it nigh on impossible to build anything, and a political order in which Nimbys are given the whip hand while politicians nod and suck their thumbs.
If Conservatives want any chance of avoiding a red wave at the next election, then they must use their time in Manchester to set out a plan to fix our broken planning system – and, with tax cuts apparently unviable, build our way out of decline.
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