Labour’s back on track on HS2, but it should never have been off it

by Kevin Meagher

A week ago Labour was going wobbly on its support for HS2, spying, it seemed, an opportunity to discomfort the government in its efforts in selling the case for the controversial scheme.

This followed warnings from shadow chancellor Ed Balls at last month’s party conference that there would be “no blank cheque” for the £42 billion project if costs escalated. Then there was the shadow cabinet reshuffle where the strongly pro-HS2 Shadow Transport Secretary Angela Eagle was moved to make way for the more sceptical Mary Creagh.

Yet last night the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill passed its third reading with a measly 11 Labour MPs voting against, a mixture of the hard left’s usual suspects and London nimbys like Frank Dobson. The flirtation with opposing HS2 is over. The centre of gravity in the parliamentary party is resolutely behind the project – especially as the North West sends the largest contingent. This matters. As Sky News reported yesterday:

“…up to 40 MPs turned up to a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s transport committee, which would usually only attract a handful of MPs, to express their anger [at creeping scepticism towards HS2]. Seventeen Labour MPs, many representing constituencies in the north, spoke out in support of HS2. Only two said anything against. Jack Straw, the former Cabinet minister, warned that he would bring a motion to the PLP if the party shifted its position.”

Now Ed Miliband is letting it be known he has asked Andrew Adonis, Labour’s last transport secretary and the man who got the ball rolling on HS2, to advise him on how to make the most of it.

This is pretty much inevitable. To have British politics divided between the pro-growth, pro-Keynesian, pro-North Tories and a Labour party seemingly committed to burnishing its credentials for fiscal hawkishness, even to the point of entrenching the south of England’s economic dominance by opposing HS2, is a paradox too far.

Yet despite this through-the-looking-glass stuff, the essential facts about HS2 haven’t changed. No-one seriously disputes that with rail travel growing exponentially we will hit full capacity, forcing the scrapping of many local rail services to make way for extra inter-city journeys.

There is no alternative when it comes to addressing the need for a new north-south line. The belief that titivating a few stations, lengthening platforms or even urging unwashed northeners not to travel south are serious policy alternatives is delusional.

Heartland Labour cities like Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool – as well as neighbouring towns – will all benefit massively from the end result – greater connectivity, new, much needed rail capacity, and the prospect of attracting investment that currently defaults to London and the South East.

But the end result is not the only win. The process itself is worth having, generating, as it will,  100,000 new jobs in high-value design and engineering, creating knock-on benefits for apprenticeships and the manufacturing supply chain. HS2 really can be a transformative investment for the whole country.

To be sure, the government has been making a hash of selling the case. Privately, HS2 insiders concede that the early focus on reduced journey times, was a mistake. Much needed rail capacity and the economic benefits it brings are the real wins.

But ministers and HS2 Limited, the company running the project, have also got themselves on a hook by allowing the debate about HS2 to be fought on the £42 billion aggregated total cost of the project. Over the over the 19 year build period of the project is £2.2 billion, around 0.3 per cent of total government spending on 2013 figures.

Even then, it is reasonable for Labour to test the costs are being controlled, but Labour’s flirtation with opposing HS2 was not really about that. It was about Labour striking a pose, finding a proxy issue that highlighted the party’s new toughness when it comes to public spending and reining in costly government projects (well, one that wasn’t Trident at any rate). A flailing HS2 fitted the bill.

So a proxy for being tough on public spending, but HS2 is also an issue about leadership and being able to take tough, long-term decisions. If the former is a weak spot for Labour, then so is the latter. David Cameron’s goading that Labour was abandoning the cross-party consensus on HS2 hit home.

So after a month of shilly-shallying, Labour is back on track in support of HS2. But, really, it should never have been off it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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7 Responses to “Labour’s back on track on HS2, but it should never have been off it”

  1. Stuart Bruce says:

    Great analysis, although I’d quibble with a small part of it. It is essential for the big cities it directly connects, but just has the potential to be a massive benefit for neighbouring towns and cities. Without the right improvements to local transport infrastructure it is potentially damaging to those smaller places. That’s part of the reason the leaders of Wakefield and Bradford are no longer part of the HS2 fan club. In the north west local authorities have banded together to proactively campaign for HS2, in Yorkshire we haven’t.

  2. Nick says:

    80,000 quid a job?

    Are you having a laugh?

    Then there are all the debt payments on top. 40 year pay off (optimistic), and you can multiply that by 3.

    In the land of madness, ….

  3. uglyfatbloke says:

    You’re kidding are n’t you? HS2 is a ridiculous waste compared to spending the same sum on general transport infrastructure improvements. HS2 will be good for sucking money out of the economies of the north and getting it into London; in what sense is that desirable? It will be like the Edinburgh tram line; a daft idea that everybody signed up for so when it works out badly (and massively over-budget) nobody will be to blame.

  4. TheNewJerusalem says:

    From what I’ve read, one HS2 = 3 Nuclear power stations. Surely that’s where we should be investing this money – they would benefit the whole country, control energy costs, no foreign money needed, train our people, UK jobs created etc etc AND they should be built as part of bringing power supplies back under state control.

    That’s the infrastructure we should be building

  5. Tafia says:

    If HS2 was a good idea it would be able to raise funding via bonds.

    The fact that it has no chance of doing that because business and the markets have no intention of putting their own money up front says everything.

    Also, experience shows over and over again that if you make connections of any sort easier between a small place and a large one then the large one sucks the wealth into it yet nothing is in the proposals to prevent that.

  6. uglyfatbloke says:

    Tafia is right on both counts, so why on earth do Ed’s advisers think this is a good idea.

  7. Rational Plan says:

    It is a good idea. As more people travel more with a growing economy then you need more transport capacity. We’ve had decades of slack capacity from the existing network but we are now carrying more passengers than ever before on a Network that is only a third the size, than at it’s peak.

    People need to read the Network Rail route utilisation strategies (that look into future investments to increase capacity om each rail line) to see that in an increasing number of cases the lines are running out of easy expansion projects. Many studies show that many routes will need new routes to increase capacity.

    A new high speed line allows the fastest services to be transferred to the new line and allows more slower services to be created on the existing line.

    High speed lines are much more profitable than conventional lines because one train and it’s crew can make many more return trips in a day than a conventional train. Therefore the operating costs are much lower per passenger.

    People moan about the cost, but is nothing in comparison to the cost of a new motorway network. If you think the Nimby fight over a new railway was bad wait until you try and do the equivalent as a new 6 lane motorway.

    Not that I’m against new roads, far from it. But the reality is no one seems to want anything built anymore, that is until it’s open and being used and then everyone forgets how they ever did without it.

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