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7 October 2023

The Greens share the blame for HS2’s demise

Caroline Lucas and her allies can’t denounce the Tories for scrapping a project they spent years attacking.

By Jonn Elledge

The sun is shining, and Labour has just won the sort of resounding by-election victory that suggests the polls are not, in fact, wrong. Labour is on course for Downing Street; the Tories for wipeout. All is well.

Except, of course, it isn’t, because the presence of June weather in October is, from another perspective, absolutely terrifying. So, arguably, is the march to victory of a Labour Party that still seems unwilling to actually bloody do anything. This week’s outrage: greeting yet another act of Tory economic vandalism with nothing but a sad face and a shrug of “nothing to be done, guv”.

HS2 was never, after all, about shaving half an hour off journeys between London and Birmingham: it was (sing along, if you know the tune) about adding capacity to the rail network by separating fast trains from slow. It also, in its original form, wouldn’t just serve the capital and the Midlands, but Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh… almost every major British city north of the M4. It would bring the country closer together, boost the economy, make it possible to reduce domestic flights and, very probably, cure that nagging ache in your back, too. It would have been brilliant. 

Except many of these messages never reached the public (honestly, how many people understood it would include the services to Newcastle?), and the price escalated thanks to ministerial uselessness. So nobody really seemed that fussed when Rishi Sunak started dismembering it, and now he’s amputated the route north of Birmingham entirely. Sunak’s cuts, and his visible hatred of anything concerning trains (honestly, does he have childhood trauma related to Thomas the Tank Engine or something?) have ironically turned the project into exactly the sort of white elephant its critics have always claimed it was. Well done there.

Labour, though, seems not to be fighting particularly hard. There can be little explanation beyond spite for the fact the government is now moving to sell the land around the Birmingham-Manchester route, not just cancelling the route but locking its non-existence in. The opposition could at least try to prevent this: say, perhaps, that while they can make no promises until they see the books, they are minded to reinstate the line, thus undercutting its development value before anyone can start developing it. Keir Starmer’s party has not done that: once again, it has placed its fear of losing even a point from its poll lead over the national economic interest.

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In fairness, though, Labour is far from the only party whose behaviour around all this has been appalling. Sunak’s Tories are not merely vandals, but vandals who seem to think the rest of us are idiots, which would at least explain why the Prime Minister insists on talking to the voters like he’s fronting the mid-morning slot on CBeebies. This week he repeatedly denied having made any decision to scrap HS2’s Manchester portion, despite having filmed a video explaining the move and briefed friendly papers it was coming.

Even more annoyingly, his government produced a list of alternative “Network North” transport schemes it would use the savings to fund. This turned out to include several schemes that had already been completed; rather more that had no new funding attached; at least one, the Leamside Line, which ministers immediately admitted they had no intention of reopening at all; and, most bafflingly of all, Plymouth. For those who enjoy pointing and laughing at government failure, it’s been a great week. For those who care about the country, rather less so.

But these are bad people and they do bad things, so in some ways the most irritating forces in the HS2 debate are those of whom we might have expected better. The official position of the Green Party of England and Wales has been, for some years, to support “the principle of a North-South High-Speed Rail line that would reduce the number of short-haul flights in the UK”, but to oppose the actually existing HS2 rail project. (What their alternative scheme would be, they have never said.)

This is yet another example of the sort of short-sighted politics that led Sunak to scrap the project, and Labour to refuse to stand up for it. While the completion of the new rail link would help meet the Greens’ long-term environmental goals, opposing it to fight for every individual tree along its route is more useful in meeting their short-term electoral ones. So it has been more than irritating – infuriating – to watch a parade of senior Green politicians such as Caroline Lucas and Molly Scott Cato, who have spent years attacking HS2, now pivoting seamlessly to attacking the Tories for scrapping it. What, exactly, did they think was going to happen?

Starmer’s Labour is playing its cards so close to its chest it’s impossible to work out what it plans to do about most of the challenges facing this country; Sunak’s Tories, of course, are beyond redemption. But with the Greens there is at least a chance of improvement. This weekend the party’s conference will be debating two motions concerning HS2: one pro, courtesy of the long-suffering Greens for HS2 group; the other anti. Better late than never, but I do wish they could have found it in them to fight for green transport before Sunak salted the earth. It should really not be this warm in October.

[See also: The Green awakening]

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