HS2: An Unnecessary Vanity Project?
Following a review into its cost in February, High-Speed Rail finally received government approval for construction work to begin on the project last week, after over a decade of equivocation as to whether such developments should go ahead. In many ways, we should have expected this. The Prime Minister loves a vanity project. It is estimated that as Mayor of London he wasted almost a billion pounds of taxpayers money on such projects, from Routemaster buses to the Emirates Air Line cable car and the infamous Garden Bridge that never was. Despite this, it is worth mentioning the plans for such a costly infrastructure development were pioneered by Andrew Adonis, Transport Secretary in the last Labour government. Criticism of the development is far from petty point-scoring with disapproval found across the political spectrum, a rarity for anything these days. Therefore, we should celebrate such a consensus whilst simultaneously seeking to scrap HS2.
The fundamental problem that most people have had with HS2 has generally been the cost. It is colossal. Current estimates of the project forecast around £100 billion, but actual costs when it finally comes to fruition are likely to be higher still. Even its most ardent supporters can be in no doubt that it is an inconceivably high proportion of taxpayers money. As a result of the pandemic we are living through, the economic argument opposing the construction of HS2 has been strengthened further. The deficit is likely to increase to levels higher than we saw following the financial crisis, therefore in the next decade it is imperative to prioritise investment that will guarantee high economic returns, and there is little evidence to suggest HS2 is one of those unfortunately. Any predictions of economic growth in cities are merely figures plucked out of thin air: it is impossible to predict the output of cities in over ten years. This became apparent at a recent Treasury Select Committee meeting when a KMPG report into HS2's regional economic impacts published was found to have ‘overstated the benefits by six to eight times’. Employment generated from HS2 would not be long-term, and clearly due to the nature of the line not evenly distributed throughout the UK. Matthew Kilcoyne, of the Adam Smith Institute claimed this week that “we've got an economic crisis that's going to cost taxpayers billions. We can't afford vanity projects like HS2”. Any benefits that are drawn from HS2 cannot be expected until 2031 at best. In any other circumstance, would you be willing to spend in excess of £100 billion on a project you will not see the immeasurably small fruits of for another decade at the earliest? Even staunch socialists would shake their heads.
Legitimate fears can also be placed around the suggestion that HS2 would exacerbate the North-South divide. Think about it. Whenever you hear proponents of the project on the media, their biggest selling point has and always will be to tell you how much faster you can get to London. It may be painful for some to hear but a country does exist outside of the M25. I thought Brexit provided that wake-up call. Clearly, it can work the opposite way and you would be able to be in Birmingham or Manchester in a slightly reduced number of minutes. Fundamentally though, without coupled investment in these cities in the North, there is no greater incentive to go just because your train might take 15 minutes less. Cities and towns in the North are crying out for long-term sources of employment, they’ve only been asking for it since the 1980s and it still appears that no one is listening. Additionally, the furthest North HS2 is planned to go is to Leeds. You can travel, not by HS2 of course, but 150 miles North of Leeds and still be in England. The infrastructure project will not serve even a quarter of the North’s cities. If this project incorporated greater cities in the North, then it might attract a significant amount of sympathy. Phase one only reaches Birmingham and the second phase which does reach Manchester, Wigan and Leeds wouldn’t be due for completion until much later, with dates around 2040 suggested. The calamitous history of Northern Rail in recent years demonstrates the need for greater infrastructure investment between cities in the North, and HS2 goes little way in remedying this issue. It would be foolish not to consider the South, therefore it is worth acknowledging that HS2 cuts out East Anglia and the South West entirely.
If anyone still remains mildly convinced, question the accessibility of the project. It is clear that much of the population will not live in close proximity to the line but even those that do, will they be able to afford travel on HS2? Would other train services be weakened and reduced as a result? What is the impact constructing HS2 would have on the environment? It is worrying that such an expensive development has received the green light with so many questions still unanswered. Overall, Europe’s largest infrastructure project is a shamelessly opportunistic move by the government, the benefits of which so far have proved extremely limited and exaggerated at that. Boris Johnson has regularly talked of ‘levelling-up’ across the entire UK, but High-Speed Rail is nothing more than a vanity project still being pursued for purely political reasons.