- Georgina Milner
HS2: Stick or Scrap?
A project initially given a budget of £56 billion is now projected to cost up to £106 billion, nearly doubling in cost under the government’s woeful management. The government’s own predictions underestimate the costs at £88 billion. However, this ‘best case scenario’ will still cost £30 billion more than initially budgeted. The National Audit Office (NAO) now admits that it is “impossible to estimate with certainty” how much HS2 will eventually cost.
The project to link London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds was found to have been poorly planned by the government-commissioned inquiry led by Mr Oakervee. Whilst part of the change in spending projections is as a result of a 47% increase in costs in two and a half years, mismanagement has played a large factor in delaying the project and it’s spiralling costs. The NAO report concluded that the Department for Transport (DfT) set the available funding for the first phase of HS2 in 2013, when there was only a “basic” design for the project. Andy McDonald, the Shadow Transport Secretary slated the government’s fumblings, stating “today’s report is a reminder of the woeful lack of political leadership High Speed Two has had under the Conservatives and a lack of honesty about rising costs”. With delays in production already occurring, a further slowing down to the scheduled construction of the line running from Birmingham to Crewe could cost up to £5m a week. At present, passenger services are expected to run by 2031, three years later than planned.
The project has always been highly controversial due to environmental concerns over the destruction of 693 wildlife sites and 33 protected sites of scientific interest. However, the ultimate aim of this project was to connect the South to the North and improve northern economies. Whilst some are sceptical of the actual benefits to the north, northern leaders themselves support the project and view it as essential to northern economic development. Northern leaders have raised concerns at the prospect that Johnson, who has previously been sceptical of the project, may scrap HS2 or scale it back once the first phase to Birmingham is complete.
Johnson has been pressured by members of his government including Chief Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings and Transport Adviser, Andrew Gilligan. However, it would be a mistake to cancel the project. Whilst I believe the construction of HS2 should not commenced during a time of austerity and soaring levels of national debt, a north to south high-speed rail system would need to be built eventually. Now that we have begun the process, already spending £7.5 billion on the project, it makes sense to see it through. The World Economic Forum ranked the quality of Britain’s infrastructure 24th in the world, down from 19th in 2006 and towards the bottom of G7 countries. We desperately need to update our infrastructure, particularly to suit environmental requirements, for which a high-speed rail is essential. At present, a car journey from East London to Birmingham takes under two and a half hours, whereas a train journey from East London to Birmingham takes over two and a half hours, meaning most people would simply drive. A high-speed rail would encourage rail use and reduce pollution levels and greenhouse gas emissions.
Although HS2 could have potential environmental benefits even if construction was scaled back after the first leg to Birmingham, its economic and productive benefits would be greatly impacted if this were to occur. Whilst the economic benefits that the line is expected to generate is in a range of £1.30 to £1.50 for every £1 spent, compared with previous claims of £2.30, this would still generate an additional £44 billion for the Exchequer.Furthermore, improved rail connectivity is key to improving productivity and reducing unemployment rates in the north. Despite fears that improved infrastructure may result in a brain drain from the north as employment is sought in the south, it is believe the opposite will occur. Improved geographical mobility is a two-way street, with increased opportunity for people from the south to migrate up north and create business hubs there whilst still staying connected to friends and family rooted at home, particularly in the face of a southern housing crisis. When the north has faced such neglect over the last decades, HS2 is far more than a symbolic gesture for them but a real chance for change.
Proposals for updating and improving transport in the north have been posed as an alternative to HS2 but costs for updating existing lines would likely be even greater than the predicted costs for HS2. Such infrastructure plans would also do little to bridge the gap between the north and the south. Whilst sceptics may suggest that this project does more to serve the needs of the south, it is again northern leaders who view the HS2 project as pressing and essential for their economies. Even members of the opposition party have warned against scrapping the project, including former Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis and Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald who stated that “the project urgently needs to get back on track and its delivery needs to be much more cost-effective and efficient”. Whilst this project is expensive and ill timed, it is necessary. Rather than postponing and delaying, it is best proceed with the construction of HS2 before costs continue to mount.