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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.