Exclusive: Adonis hits back at HS2 critics and warns Labour not to abandon support

After Alistair Darling called for the new rail line to be scrapped, the former transport secretary and HS2 architect argues that it would be an "act of national self-mutilation" to do so.

After Alistair Darling became the latest senior political figure to come out against High Speed 2 (HS2), pressure is rising on the government and the opposition to withdraw their support for the project. Darling wrote in yesterday's Times: "The next government and the one after that will be very short of money to spend on the infrastructure we desperately need. To commit ourselves to spend so much on a project which rules out other major schemes seems foolish."

In an interview on BBC News following the former chancellor's intervention, Ed Balls refused to guarantee that Labour would support the new £42.6bn rail line in its general election manifesto. He said: "There’s no blank cheque from a Labour Treasury for HS2 — it’s got to be value for money. If the case is not strong enough, if you don’t see the gains, if, as we’ve seen in recent weeks and months, the cost is going up and up and up, that’s something which we have to keep under review."

But in a piece for the New Statesman, Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and the architect of HS2, warns that it would be an "act of national self-mutilation" to cancel the project.

The Labour peer, who is leading a review of growth policy for the party, writes that "the case for High Speed Two is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in March 2010, and virtually none of the arguments of the latest critics, including the Institute of Economic Affairs, affect it."

He adds: "[T]he key justification is not speed but capacity. There will be an acute shortage of transport capacity from the 2020s to convey freight, commuters and other passengers into and between the major conurbations of London, the West Midlands, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire. Since there is no viable plan, let alone political will, to build new motorways between these places, or to dramatically increase air traffic between them, this additional capacity must largely be met by rail or Britain will grind to a halt."

After Darling suggested that the £42.6bn cost would be better spent on upgrading existing lines and other smaller scale infrastructure projects, he points out: "Detailed costings that I commissioned in 2009 suggested that to secure just two-thirds of HS2's extra capacity by upgrading existing lines would cost more in cash terms than building HS2. So there is no free lunch - or pot of gold which can be diverted to other projects in anything but the very short-term, with more costly consequences thereafter."

Adonis also rejects the former chancellor's claim that the economic benefits of the new 225-mph line, which will run between London and Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, are "highly contentious". The former chancellor argued that "The business case depends on an assumption that passengers aren’t productive — that is, that they don’t work on the train. That may be true on a commuter train but not on long haul intercity services. Arguably, more work is done on the train than in the office." But Adonis writes: "Debates about the benefits of faster journey times to Birmingham, and whether or not business travellers work productively on trains, are beside the point. If the additional capacity is required, it ought to be provided in the most cost-effective manner.

"However, the additional benefits of HS2 are considerable. As HS2 proceeds further north, the time savings become steadily greater: nearly an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. The connectivity benefits are also dramatic. HS2 transforms links between the Midlands and the north, as well as between London and those conurbations. HS2 includes a direct interchange with Crossrail  the new east-west underground line through London, opening in 2019 which will convey passengers to the West End, the City and Canary Wharf in a fraction of the time, and with far less than congestion than presently."

Adonis warns Ed Miliband not to repeat the mistakes of Harold Wilson's Labour government, which cancelled plans for the Channel Tunnel and the new London airport at Maplin Sands that it inherited from the Heath administration in 1974. He writes: "[T]he temptation for Labour to claim it is 'saving' £42bn by proposing to cancel a 'Tory' project will be intense. It was at a similarly early phase in their construction that the incoming 1974 Labour government cancelled the Channel Tunnel and the new London airport at Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary, inherited from the Heath government. They were dubbed 'Tory extravagance' although, like HS2, their origins lay in the previous Labour government and there was nothing remotely right-wing about them.

"These were stupid short-termist decisions. In the case of Maplin, the last best opportunity to relocate the UK's principal international gateway to a far larger and more suitable site was thrown away. We are still paying the price in the current impasse over a third runway at Heathrow when the international airports serving Amsterdam. Paris and Frankfurt have six, four and four runways respectively.

"It would be a similar act of national self-mutilation to cancel HS2 in 2015, six years into the project."

During a Q&A session with Labour activists in Edinburgh yesterday, Ed Miliband said that he remained a supporter of HS2, describing it as "part of being a modern country". But he added: "We have to scrutinise it for value for money and we are going to keep doing that and that’s something we do with any government project."

An updated cost-benefit analysis of the project, the budget for which has risen from £32bn to £42.6bn, will be published by the government before the end of the year. George Osborne is reportedly planning a campaign this autumn to shore up political support for the line.

Labour peer and former transport secretary Andrew Adonis, who first announced plans for High Speed Two in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.