The “engine for growth” was how George Osborne punningly described the government’s high-speed rail plans this morning. Ministers are unveiling details of the second phase of the network, which will extend the already-planned London to Birmingham HS2 line to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport estimates that the 250mph line will almost halve journey times between Birmingham and Manchester to 41 minutes and between London and Manchester to one hour and eight minutes. Once the route is complete in 2032, six years after the first phase, it will take 57 minutes to travel from Birmingham to Leeds, compared with one hour and fifty eight minutes at present, and one hour and twenty two minutes to travel from London, compared with two hours and twelve minutes currently.
Osborne told BBC Breakfast this morning that HS2 would “change the economic geography of this country” and, naturally, “help Britain win the global race”. But the £32.7bn project doesn’t come without a political price tag attached, as the Chancellor will be well aware. His Tatton constituency is one of those through which the new route will pass and locals in the area, which includes ancient parkland and National Trust property, are already warning of “resistance like you’ve never seen before”. Conservative Frank Keegan, a ward councillor for Alderley Edge, told the FT that “It could be an enormous issue for [Mr Osborne], a large part of his support is around this area. I don’t see why you should rip up all this countryside and spend £40bn just to take 20 minutes off a journey.” He added: “It will be blighting a lot of houses. There would be almighty resistance to that line, [and] it will be resistance like you’ve never seen before.”
George Walton, the Conservative mayor of Cheshire East, has voiced similar concerns over the “absolutely massive project”.
“There would be … public outrage if it went across any of our local countryside, which is rich farming land,” he said. “We already have the M6 slicing through the area. The route must be properly considered and put to the public first or it will be very problematic from a public acceptance point of view.”
In view of the political damage that the project could inflict on the already-beleaguered Chancellor, councils are on the lookout for any attempt to divert the route away from Osborne’s constituency. Martin Tett, the leader of the 51M Alliance of councils opposing the scheme, said: “If it avoids most of it, it is George Osborne who will face accusations of nimbyism and hypocrisy.”
In response to such protests, ministers have promised “a generous compensation package” for people living near the line as well as noise and other nuisance mitigation measures such as tunnels. But such concessions aside, the government will cite this as evidence of its willingness to take “tough decisions” for growth.
The Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, who will make a statement on the project to Parliament today, has rightly argued that “while doing nothing would be the easy choice it would also be the irresponsible choice.” He said: “This is an unparalleled opportunity to secure a step-change in Britain’s competitiveness and this government will do everything possible to ensure that the towns and cities in the Midlands and the north get the connections they need and deserve to thrive”.
But as today’s Times reports (£), the Tory revolt against the scheme is gathering force. One figure to watch closely will be the former Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, who has denounced HS2, which goes through her Chesham and Amersham constituency, as a “terrible” idea. After being sacked from the cabinet by a wine-swilling David Cameron, she commented: “That allows me to almost go back to my roots, if you like, and to speak out about something that is affecting my constituents and my constituency, and that is this terrible HS2 project which the prime minister and my cabinet colleagues have known of my complete opposition to for a long time”. The Prime Minister may yet come to regret dismissing Gillan, the likely ringleader of the rebellion, so casually.