Support for High Speed 2 slows down – fast
Ella Fallows looks back on a tumultuous month for this major infrastructure project and highlights the key things you should read to get up to speed on HS2.
Following a lengthy debate spanning many years, HS2 seemed a done deal. With the Preparation Bill (the Bill that authorises the expenditure for the project) passing its second reading late last month and the Government launching the consultation on phase two of the route last week, you might think the project was finally making headway.
You might, however, be wrong. After seemingly achieving cross-party consensus on the need for the route, the Government’s announcement in June that the project could require an additional £10 billion funding over its life (taking the total to almost £50 billion) had not just critics, but former supporters of the scheme, baulking at the spiralling costs. It was then revealed by the DfT Permanent Secretary during a faltering performance at a Public Accounts Committee hearing that the cost-benefit analysis done by the Department in 2009 was completed using an outdated methodology. Transport economists featured on a highly critical Newsnight report suggested a new analysis of the scheme in light of the rise in projected costs could yield a benefit-cost ratio of as little as 0.4. Those who had previously welcomed the plans began to join the growing ranks of detractors to express their concern over the relevance, necessity and cost of HS2.
First Alistair Darling, then Lord Mandelson, broke ranks with the Labour party leadership to warn in the FT that the project could ‘suck up cash’ and could prove an ‘expensive mistake’. Then, to add to the misery of the pro-HS2 lobby, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said (also in the FT) that he was ‘concerned about rising costs’ and that the project could not be handed a blank cheque. Business Secretary Vince Cable became the first senior government figure to express doubt this month during a Today Programme interview, suggesting the case was still being made for the scheme. Anti-HS2 sentiment seems to be on the rise in the media with leading commentators including the FT’s Jim Pickard questioning the sense of the scheme.
With the number of senior figures voicing concern over spiralling costs, raising doubts about the economic case, is there still hope for this massive infrastructure project? It will almost certainly happen, with the Government and opposition still officially behind it; reluctant to u-turn on something they have supported so vocally. Plans are well underway and (as outlined in this Economist article) it may be too late to pull the plug. Last week’s overturning by the court of appeal of a challenge brought by those affected by the route certainly suggests it is full steam ahead for this much needed but controversial project. But with growing and vocal opposition from all sides, the road (or railway line) ahead is sure to be long and fraught with challenges.