Exclusive: Adonis warns that "incompetent" coalition must control costs if HS2 is to survive

The architect of High Speed 2 and the head of Labour's growth review says that Ed Balls's threat to withdraw support for the project has "raised the bar".

After Ed Balls threatened to withdraw Labour's support for High Speed 2 and suggested that the £42.6bn allocated to the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere, I spoke to Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and the architect of HS2, at a New Statesman fringe event last night to get his response.

In his first reported comments since Balls's speech, Adonis, who is the head of Labour's growth review and shadow infrastructure minister, told me that the shadow chancellor had "raised the bar" for the project and that the "incompetent" coalition needed to demonstrate that it could "keep costs under control" if HS2 was to survive. He criticised the government's failure to pass legislation more quickly and to manage the programme effectively: "all they've done since coming to office is add £10bn to it".

Adonis, who warned in a recent New Statesman piece that it would be an "act of national self-mutilation" to cancel HS2, told me: "the current contingency fund of £14bn is too large and the cost needs to come down when the bill has its second reading in February/March." He added: "it's no surprise opinion is turning against it if people fear it will end up costing £100bn."

In his speech, Balls said: "the question is – not just whether a new high-speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country. In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded."

Adonis warned in his piece that the urgent need to increase rail capacity (the West Coast Main Line will be full by 2024) meant there was "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". But at a fringe meeting last night, Balls openly speculated on whether the HS2 money would be better spent on "building new homes or new schools or new hospitals".

With Miliband due to pledge in his speech today to build a million new homes over the course of the next parliament, it's unsurprising that Ballls is attracted by the option of scrapping HS2. It would allow Labour to raise billions for other projects while remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. For Balls, understandably wary of making the case for borrowing to invest, that is political gold.

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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.