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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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