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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle