Paul Vallely: Johnson should be brave on HS2

24 January 2020

High-speed rail is a way to ‘level up’ the nation, says Paul Vallely

PA

MY ANTENNAE twitched when the latest government report on the high-speed train initiative, HS2, was leaked to the Financial Times. Government leaks often mean that something fishy is going on. That was confirmed when a member of the HS2 review team — Andrew Sentance, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee — revealed that Downing Street was putting a spin on the report behind the scenes.

The HS2 review was not a “draft” version of the Oakervee report, as No. 10 spin doctors were saying, but a partial selection from the final report, Mr Sentance revealed. Moreover, although the leak had emphasised that the cost of the 21st-century rail project had soared again — from £88 billion last year to a possible £106 billion — the expert committee recommended that, with some adjustments, the project still still go ahead. That fact was downplayed in the leak.

There is more to all this than the cost of a big transport project. It goes to a paradox at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government. Two of Mr Johnson’s key advisers — Downing Street’s backroom éminence grise Dominic Cummings, and the PM’s transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan — are long-term opponents of the big spending scheme to provide a new fast rail line from London to Birmingham and then on to Manchester and Leeds.

But Mr Johnson himself has a fondness for big projects — and he knows that scrapping HS2 will not go down well in the north of England, where he won unprecedented numbers of seats at the General Election last month. He has vowed to push policies to draw these left-behind areas permanently into the Tory fold.

Arguments go back and forth about the economic benefits of HS2, and whether it is value for money. HS2 is about more than halving the journey time from Manchester to London: creating a completely new hi-tech line will free up existing railways for improved local services, which are fairly appalling outside south-east England. And HS2 is essential to the next stage, HS3, which will join Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Sheffield, and Hull in an east-west corridor of regeneration.

Some of the new Tory MPs from the former Labour heartlands in the Midlands and the north have suggested building HS2 to Birmingham and then upgrading existing lines to Manchester and Leeds. That is both technologically and politically naïve. The technical problem is that Network Rail experts say that replacing HS2 with upgrades to existing lines built in the Victorian era will bring passengers “absurd” levels of disruption. The political problem is that it will deprive the north of the benefits of the high-speed link demanded by most business leaders and northern mayors.

Which is more important? Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, who was on the panel that advised the Oakervee committee, has said that the decision is now not primarily technical, but political.

Mr Johnson has pledged to rebalance growth and productivity across the nation and to put infrastructure at the heart of his government’s policy agenda. Scrapping HS2, or even delaying its extension to the north of England, does not seem like a good start to fulfilling the new administration’s promise to “level up” the country. It is time for Boris to be brave.

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