Getting the politics of HS2 right: why Greening must not be diverted

19 December, 2011

The consultation is over, the votes are in. And, if DfT officials have responded to the recent promptings of the Transport Select Committee, the Secretary of State for Transport will also shortly be receiving a fresh batch of reports addressing a number of questions the Committee raised.

So there will be plenty for Justine Greening to ponder over her Christmas/New Year break, including ways in which HS2’s impact on local communities might be lessened by refinements to the current design. Indeed, we know already that some further tunnelling is likely.

But once the technical details are as resolved as they can be, it gets political. She will note that the Prime Minister has very publicly repeated his support for the project. And remarkably, the Chancellor of Exchequer is supportive too. Then Justine Greening will note that high-speed rail was an early agreement for the Coalition Government.  A project that unites the coalition partners is not to be thrown away lightly just now.

Then she will turn her attention to the potential fall-out from local MPs and their constituents. Objectors have been encouraged by the one month delay in decision. But it looks likely that the best they can hope for when the announcement comes is not that HS2 is cancelled, but that the decision is deferred.

Yet for many of the objectors affected by the proposed route, a deferral would actually mean extended uncertainty. Since it would suit virtually nobody, you might suppose that it is not being proposed as a sensible outcome of the formal consultation process. Well, think again: this is indeed being suggested – but carefully disguised under a banner of total support for the project. Let me explain.

At first glance, Maria Eagle, shadow Transport Secretary, writing in the Yorkshire Post on December 15th appears totally behind HS2:

“A new high speed rail line between London and Yorkshire must be built, and there must be no delay to the timetable we set out in government.”

But reading on, we see that Labour’s idea is that the route developed while Labour was in power is now to be rejected outright:

“… we would move the extra stop planned for the West of London from the Government’s proposed site at Old Oak Common to a location by Heathrow Airport…

… by taking the line via Heathrow, a new alignment will be created between London and Birmingham that enables better protection of the Chilterns, resolving the disputes that are holding up the scheme.”

In other words, according to Maria Eagle, the chosen route for HS2, the alignment that has been the subject of informal and then formal consultation since it was published in March 2010, should now be ditched. This would set the project timescale back two years as the new route would need a new consultation process. Such an approach is irreconcilable with the claim that ‘there must be no delay’. It in effect makes it impossible for a Parliamentary Bill to be deposited within the lifetime of this Government.

Quite how a different route across the Chilterns and on across Oxfordshire and Warwickshire to the West Midlands would be more acceptable than the route selected by HS2 Ltd is unclear. It is highly likely that a route via Beaconsfield, tunnelled under High Wycombe and located close to the M40 (which is how this alternative has been described elsewhere) would impact many more people than the chosen route. The band of objectors will simply de-camp westwards 10 miles.

Driving Maria Eagles’s view, and presumably legitimising the argument that the impact on timescales is benign, is the belief that the decision actually in front of the Secretary of State – whether to commit to proceeding to a Parliamentary Bill for HS2 – is not the right question. She wants instead for there to be a Bill for a bigger Y-shaped network, more than doubling the scale of works and adding Manchester and Leeds to the route alongside Birmingham. But Ministers have not been presented with the detail of these extended schemes, and neither has the public. This would also add at least two years to the front end of the planning process. And, with a mammoth 300+ mile network to consider in Parliament, the Bill process is bound to take longer too.

Greengauge 21 has championed a truly national HSR network and so we agree that HS2 should not stop at Birmingham. But we have to proceed step by step. We have taken the advice of specialist Parliamentary agents, who tell us that the Y network is unmanageable, simply too large for a single Parliamentary bill. And it won’t take long for the realisation to dawn: the planning battle gets no easier further north.

To win planning arguments – in Parliament or elsewhere – in the end comes down to a matter of proving need. The central case that drives the need for HS2 is capacity: every mode of transport between London and the Midlands will soon be operating at capacity, and upgrading existing facilities is not a viable option.

Between the Midlands, the North and Scotland, the planning and investment case for high-speed rail is just as compelling, but it is different, and less centred on the capacity argument.  Getting  the scheme definition and its supporting planning case right requires consideration of a more complex set of choices about how best to serve the major cities of the North and a thorough look at the alternatives to HSR.

It’s highly likely that a strongly felt ambition to ‘do something for the North’ is a factor in Labour’s proposition: but holding up HS2 in this way will damage and delay the prospects for the North’s economic recovery just as much as it will delay benefits for the Midlands. This is because HS2 – as a London-West Midlands infrastructure scheme – brings new rail services over a much wider area. It actually brings more benefits to the North West than the Midlands as it stands – as we explained in our What will HS2 do for the North West leaflet. There is a crucial difference between the extent of infrastructure and the coverage of HSR services the new infrastructure supports. Even in the first stage of HS2, there will be high-speed rail services from Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.

And with the addition of a short link towards the Midland Main Line, an eastern corridor serving Derby and Sheffield can be created from the outset to get the same 30 minute journey time saving to London as cities west of the Pennines. And Leeds as well as Manchester could be provided with high-speed services direct to Europe. (See section 4 of our consultation response for more details.)

Just why should the North be denied the chance to benefit from HS2 at the earliest opportunity? Deferral should not be an option.