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
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.