Why high-speed rail could become one of Osborne's biggest headaches

The Chancellor faces a local revolt over the new route, which passes through his Tatton constituency.

The "engine for growth" was how George Osborne punningly described the government's high-speed rail plans this morning. Ministers are unveiling details of the second phase of the network, which will extend the already-planned London to Birmingham HS2 line to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport estimates that the 250mph line will almost halve journey times between Birmingham and Manchester to 41 minutes and between London and Manchester to one hour and eight minutes. Once the route is complete in 2032, six years after the first phase, it will take 57 minutes to travel from Birmingham to Leeds, compared with one hour and fifty eight minutes at present, and one hour and twenty two minutes to travel from London, compared with two hours and twelve minutes currently. 

Osborne told BBC Breakfast this morning that HS2 would "change the economic geography of this country" and, naturally, "help Britain win the global race". But the £32.7bn project doesn't come without a political price tag attached, as the Chancellor will be well aware. His Tatton constituency is one of those through which the new route will pass and locals in the area,  which includes ancient parkland and National Trust property, are already warning of "resistance like you've never seen before". Conservative Frank Keegan, a ward councillor for Alderley Edge, told the FT that "It could be an enormous issue for [Mr Osborne], a large part of his support is around this area. I don’t see why you should rip up all this countryside and spend £40bn just to take 20 minutes off a journey." He added: "It will be blighting a lot of houses. There would be almighty resistance to that line, [and] it will be resistance like you’ve never seen before."

George Walton, the Conservative mayor of Cheshire East, has voiced similar concerns over the "absolutely massive project".

"There would be ... public outrage if it went across any of our local countryside, which is rich farming land," he said. "We already have the M6 slicing through the area. The route must be properly considered and put to the public first or it will be very problematic from a public acceptance point of view."

In view of the political damage that the project could inflict on the already-beleaguered Chancellor, councils are on the lookout for any attempt to divert the route away from Osborne's constituency. Martin Tett, the leader of the 51M Alliance of councils opposing the scheme, said: "If it avoids most of it, it is George Osborne who will face accusations of nimbyism and hypocrisy."

In response to such protests, ministers have promised "a generous compensation package" for people living near the line as well as noise and other nuisance mitigation measures such as tunnels. But such concessions aside, the government will cite this as evidence of its willingness to take "tough decisions" for growth. 

The Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, who will make a statement on the project to Parliament today, has rightly argued that "while doing nothing would be the easy choice it would also be the irresponsible choice." He said: "This is an unparalleled opportunity to secure a step-change in Britain's competitiveness and this government will do everything possible to ensure that the towns and cities in the Midlands and the north get the connections they need and deserve to thrive". 

But as today's Times reports (£), the Tory revolt against the scheme is gathering force. One figure to watch closely will be the former Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, who has denounced HS2, which goes through her Chesham and Amersham constituency, as a "terrible" idea. After being sacked from the cabinet by a wine-swilling David Cameron, she commented: "That allows me to almost go back to my roots, if you like, and to speak out about something that is affecting my constituents and my constituency, and that is this terrible HS2 project which the prime minister and my cabinet colleagues have known of my complete opposition to for a long time". The Prime Minister may yet come to regret dismissing Gillan, the likely ringleader of the rebellion, so casually. 

Chancellor George Osborne said that high-speed rail would "change the economic geography of this country". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images
Show Hide image

Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.