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.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.