Last week, Andrea Leadsom hosted her first backbench debate in five years, arguing for a review of the HS2 project and the poor economic case upon which it is built.
And she is right to call for a review. HS2 is one of the major projects which seemed unlikely to survive the Conservative leadership election in its early stages as potential candidates, including Boris Johnson, lined up to suggest that the vanity project isn’t fit for purpose.
Indeed, just this week the Tory candidate for mayor of London, Shaun Bailey, joined calls to outright scrap the project, adding further pressure to the government’s policy line.
HS2 still seems unlikely to survive much longer and will require inexplicable political will to reach any form of completion. This will, however, is palpable.
The argument of politicians is this: “We’ve already spent a few billion, so we may as well hold our breath and stick the other £100bn or so on red and hope for the best.”
Obviously, that’s ridiculous.
With a limited business case, no environmental case, and inflated costs hitting over £90bn, it’s no wonder that even celebrities have recently come out in opposition to the doomed project.
I’m wary of a Boris “red bus” moment, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that £90bn could be better spent elsewhere, particularly with the current Conservative leadership candidates fronting increasingly dubious spending pledges.
Indeed, even to ignore the more emotive cases for greater healthcare spending, or reallocating the funds to education, recent figures have outlined the shocking disparity between London and the north when it comes to transport funding.
The Department for Transport has admitted that high-speed rail is dramatically worse for the environment than a conventional one. The obvious course of action is to spend the money on improving northern transport links, rather than a project which will be obsolete by the time it opens.
I’m slowly becoming convinced that HS2 is an unbelievably subtle plot to convince the UK again of the virtues of businesses, the free market, and small government. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to look at HS2 and think: “Great job, let’s let the state run all of our transport.”
One argument for this diabolical white elephant is that it would “unlock” the power of the north. No, it wouldn’t.
Without first devolving fiscal power to local northern administrations, HS2 would work hugely to the detriment of the north rather than encouraging London based firms to move northwards (where they still rely heavily on Westminster and the most centralised state in the developed world).
There is next to no evidence that HS2 would avoid the obvious relocation of workers to London itself. Without dramatically accelerating the devolution agenda to encourage investment in the north, HS2 could easily spell disaster.
When high-speed rail links two cities, economic activity is bound to favour the larger and more dominant. As opposed to the notion that individuals living in London will be suddenly convinced to make a commute to Birmingham, business in London will experience a sudden deepening in the pool of potential talent.
Those in the “HS2-linked” cities are far more likely to take the slightly shorter trip to London for higher wages and a career in the City, and who can really blame them for the drain on the Midlands and the north?
If the government was serious about “unlocking” the potential of the north, it would devolve greater powers to the northern regions and allow them to encourage business out of London with lower corporation taxes.
It would support ambitious cities like Leeds in its aim to become the UK’s capital of digital, a home for upstart tech firms, by unequivocally slamming any talk of a “tech tax” and improving life for small businesses by cutting rates.
We’d consider moving elements of our political world out of London, to encourage tourism and industry. Instead, gigantic, out-of-control projects like HS2 take money out of the pockets of northern people (and everyone else, for that matter.)
Leadsom and others are absolutely correct to review the case for HS2. Whilst the sentiments behind those who see HS2 as the centrepiece for the “Northern Powerhouse” project are, I’m sure, in the right place, it is absolutely essential that government makes a return to evidence-based, sensible policy-making. HS2 does not make the cut.