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Why Is There So Little Opposition In The Commons To Hs2?

Last Updated: Friday, June 28th, 2013

There is a powerful twin argument against the Government’s High Speed Two (HS2) plan – the Paving Bill for which gained a second reading in the Commons earlier this week, despite the news that its budget is to increase by a fifth from £34 billion to £43 billion. It is as follows:

  • That if government is to spend £43 billion on infrastructure to boost business in cash-strapped times, there are better ways to spend the money.  The New Economics Foundation has identified 88 separate transport projects and super-fast broadband for ten British cities – and that was before the latest news of the rise in costs.
  • That if government is to reject this option and pursue HS2, it should wait until it has made a decision on airport expansion before deciding the route.  The original Conservative plan was to run HS2 from Heathrow as an alternative to a new runway.  Instead, it is now following Labour’s original government plan before it knows where the expansion will be.  Why, then, is it so determined to press ahead with the project – and why is the Commons so quiescent about the bill? (Only 37 MPs voted against it this week.)  After all, it isn’t as though there aren’t doubts at senior levels about it. Maria Eagle, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, is believed to be sceptical – as was Philip Hammond, the former Transport Secretary, when in post.
  • A key point at the start is that David Cameron is personally committed to the bill.  He argues that all big projects meet opposition, citing the channel tunnel as an example.  Prime Ministers sometimes identify particular plans in their minds as legacy issues, and it seems that, for Cameron, HS2 has become one.
  • HS2 has become a symbol of the Conservatives’ commitment to the north, where they are electorally weak.  Of 124 urban seats in the north and midlands, they hold only 20.  Although the CBI is sceptical about HS2, local chambers of commerce take a different view, as do big city councils such as Birmingham.  Cameron won’t want to open up a vulnerable front with Labour by cancelling the project.
  • HS2 has also become a symbol of the Government’s commitment to big infrastructure projects at a time when identifying another flagship measure is hard to do – particularly in the light of the postponement of an airport decision until after the next election.  Again, Labour is pressing the Government on more capital spending to boost the economy.
  • There would undoubtedly be costs in cancelling the project, which would expose the Department of Transport to renewed criticism after the West Coast main line debacle.  No wonder Patrick McLoughlin, in a ConservativeHome article supporting the  project this week, stressed claims that the project will provide £50 billion worth of benefits for the economy and over 100,00 jobs.

Essentially, the logic behind HS2 is that since railway demand will soar, a choice involved in meeting it demands either building a new dedicated line to the midlands or north, or else spending even more on the West Coast line – or putting in more short-haul air flights instead, the environmental costs of which government is reluctant to accept.

It was this logic, plus a feeling for “grand projects”, that lay behind Andrew Adonis’s push for the present HS2 plan under Labour.  The Treasury, by contrast, is far more cool, as it always is about big projects.  George Osborne is less emotionally committed to HS2 than Cameron, despite his northern seat, and this stance represents traditional Treasury caution.

Adonis’s calculations about the relative costs of a dedicated line look even more shaky this week than before, and it is increasingly evident that new technology enables more people than ever to work while travelling.  Part of the orthodoxy behind HS2 is that this is difficult to do, which is why journey times must be cut.

However, the brutal electoral truth is that the only MPs with an incentive to challenge the project are fiscal hawks, or those whose constituencies are affected adversely.  HS2 will doubtless chug on until or unless legal challenges or Treasury apparatchiks kill it off.  As for legacy, Cameron had better hope it really does turn out more like the Channel tunnel and less like Concorde.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Lord Ashcroft: Would Boris be a winner for the Tories? Here’s what 8000 people say in my poll “In the focus groups, the prospect of Boris one day becoming Prime Minister was usually raised by participants themselves; it was to them an obvious part of any conversation about him. When asked who would make the best PM, each of the three party leaders or Boris, David Cameron came out narrowly ahead on 33 per cent, two points ahead of Ed Miliband, four points ahead of Boris and 26 points ahead of Clegg. Among Conservatives, Cameron was the clear winner over Boris, by 81 per cent to 18 per cent. UKIP supporters were the only group among whom Boris was the favourite. When we asked about how they would handle different aspects of the job, Boris beat Cameron only on “understanding ordinary people” (and Miliband beat them both). Cameron was the clear leader when it came to representing Britain internationally, making the right decisions even when they are unpopular, leading a team and doing the job overall.” Read more: http://is.gd/SfKG4d

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP: We can’t afford not to build HS2 “As well as addressing the issue of capacity, HS2 offers huge opportunities to create jobs and boost our economy. Our conservative estimates are that the project will create 100,000 jobs. The Core Cities group goes further, predicting that it will underpin four times that number, with 70 per cent of them outside London. It is expected to provide around £50 billion pounds worth of economic benefits for the economy, with some estimates suggesting it will add more than £4 billion before it is even open. Our towns and cities, particularly across the North and Midlands, cannot afford to lose out on these opportunities.

Whilst we can’t afford not to do it, it is vital that we control the costs and deliver maximum value to the taxpayer. That is why I am writing to HS2 Ltd setting them a target price for delivering phase 1 of £17 billion. This accounts for important recent design changes to the scheme such as the decision to build a tunnel from Old Oak Common to Hortholt.” Read more: http://is.gd/FezP4Q

Mark Wallace: Was the Spending Review worth the effort, when it is the economy right now that demands our attention? “Given such a patchy report card, one wonders all the more whether the Spending Review was the best focus for so much time and effort. If there is no economic growth, then it looks unlikely that any of the Ministers negotiating the 2015/16 departmental budgets will be there to implement them.

The reasons for such slow progress are hotly disputed. It’s certainly true that on some topics (such as energy and employment regulation) the Lib Dems have made life almost impossible. But attempts to blame the realpolitik of coalition for the failure to act on airport capacity, for example, simply do not hold water.

The depressing fact is that the Conservatives set ourselves up for the airports mess while in Opposition – and compounded it with the appointment of a Transport Secretary personally opposed to a policy essential to the future of the nation’s transport infrastructure.” Read more: http://is.gd/K2Gw2m

Brooks Newmark MP: Why Israel must find a means of negotiating with Hamas “If the current leadership faces a legitimacy crisis, the inclusion of the political party which represents the views of half the population would be a logical solution to this problem.  Our lessons from Northern Ireland tell us that it is when we bring people into the political process that sustainable solutions can be found and violence can be curtailed. Hamas’s inclusion in the political process would prevent it acting as a spoiler, since it is through diplomacy that political channels are strengthened and parties have a voice through diplomatic engagement – and therefore do not feel the need to resort to violence to be heard.  Even if Israel does not wish to engage directly with Hamas, the Palestinians should appoint (elect) an interlocutor who has the legitimacy to negotiate for all the Palestinian people, not just one half of it.” Read more: http://is.gd/HlRoyp

Charlotte Leslie MP: We need a judge-led inquiry into the NHS – one which goes right to the top “A major inquiry, led by a judge, should be held into what has happened; it should reveal the relationships and interrelationships between NHS managers, Department of Health Officials, Secretaries of State and Ministers at the time. It should look at how appointments were made, and where interests of individuals lay, who know what and when (for example, why did Andy Burnham ignore 81 requests to look into Mid Staffs? How could it have been possible for David Nicholson not to know about mortality data when he was in charge of Mid Staffs, as he claims? Who instigated the Birmingham University Report to squash the data when they did find out about it?). This is the only way to get to the bottom of this almost mafia-like web of self-interest.” Read more: http://is.gd/MIoqRy

 

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