Why HS2 should speed ahead

We need bold policies.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take the Eurostar will have felt no small wonder at the speed and grace with which the sleek train snakes under the Channel and into Paris. Plans for HS2, a second high-speed line, have stirred anew such excitement.

Compared to the reality so many of us experience daily of overcrowded and delayed carriages pulling in to dirty, decaying stations, the fast and futuristic HS2 seems a welcome departure. From the golden age of steam we can progress to the golden age of speed and ignore the intervening seventy years of stagnation. 

But this is currently romance: despite the clear demand for better infrastructure the sums don’t seem to be add up. Cutting running times by 34 minutes to Birmingham will cost £21 billion, £618 million a minute, and the calculation of economic benefits to business is skewed too: it doesn’t account for the advent of the plug socket and WiFi – ie people working on the trains. Arguably nor will it bring more business to the regions from London, but likely the other way around.

There will be disruption to thousands living in the country, whose houses will be demolished entirely or undermined by constructions works or new noise, and the taxpayer will have to compensate them. Add to this the difficulties faced by farmers who will see their farms severed by the project. And urbanites must suffer too, with potentially 40 per cent of Euston services being cancelled until 2026.

The planners have not even engaged in joined-up thinking: HS2 will not connect at St Pancras, for a swift onward journey to the Continent, but at Euston, a brisk walk or Tube journey away.

These frustrations are many and have seen the government change tack in arguing HS2’s ability to mitigate overcrowding by running fourteen services an hour. Critics have responded by saying most people commute from surrounding suburbs rather than intercity across hundreds of miles. A straw man but a valid point on infrastructure expenditure.

The sorest point is the cost. Is it really cheaper to buy a new network than upgrade what exists? Will the economic benefits materialise? And who believes an HS2 train ticket will be affordable?

The bigger picture

But these challenges show the scale of planning: these are unwanted but accounted-for problems. Ultimately no-one wants to keep the current antiquated rail network, with rail passenger numbers rising, and the employment in its construction is welcome. If we are going to spend big we should at least guarantee we will have the best transport system, future proofed and fast.

As oil prices rise and emission quotas bite, high speed rail is a superb option, not least as we internationalise and need to connect our expanding airports. There is a much bigger, longer-term picture here that shows the real cost will be in waiting.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has highlighted the fact that Britain should have the best possible infrastructure and said on the Today programme this morning that HS2 was ‘essential’ to Britain. He is right.

No great thing is ever easy; it is my sincerest hope that such an ambitious project can overcome these challenges. Bold policies can transcend politics and what better way to spark economic growth than through comprehensive and innovative infrastructure. 

Alex Matchett is a writer for Spear's magazine

This piece first appeared here

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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