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  1. The Staggers
27 January 2023

HS2 is a symptom of our terminal decline

Jeremy Hunt may claim Britain has a bright, innovative future, but his Treasury cares only about getting things on the cheap.

By Jonn Elledge

This morning (27 January), at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in the exciting and future-facing city of London, Jeremy Hunt gave a landmark speech to mark three months as Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Declinism about Britain was wrong in the past,” he proclaimed to the assembled masses, “and it is wrong today. Some of the gloom is based on statistics that do not reflect the whole picture.” Where in that picture a decade of flatlining wages and decline in living standards fits, Hunt didn’t say, but the overriding message was clear: we should all stop talking Britain down. This country has an exciting future ahead.

Meanwhile, news broke that someone in the department which Hunt oversees had come up with a brilliant money-saving wheeze. A few months back the Treasury big brains thought up a way of cutting the price of the HS2 rail line, by lopping off its eastern arm, so that it would no longer be bothering Nottingham or Leeds. So why could we not make it cheaper still, by making sure it didn’t run to London, either? Instead of terminating at Euston, where land is expensive and people actually want to go, why not end it at Old Oak Common, a patch of empty-ish land next to some railway lines five miles to the west? Then it wouldn’t cost as much to build. Genius!

This is, of course, a catastrophically stupid idea. It’s the sort of thing that only makes sense if you assume it’s an attempt to render the project so useless that even its supporters are happy to cancel the whole thing entirely. A big benefit trains have over planes is that you can take them from city centre to city centre. Dumping passengers somewhere in the vicinity of Wormwood Scrubs would increase journey times (because they’d all need to get to central London), reduce demand (same), and might not even save that much money, since you’d need a much bigger station at Old Oak Common than anyone has so far planned (terminals need far more platforms than through stations).

It’s also impossible to square with Hunt’s claims that Britain is still at the bleeding edge of innovation: the country that literally invented the intercity passenger railway is now incapable of working out how to build a train. For heaven’s sake, international investors, save yourselves and invest your money in Poland, they’ll have higher living standards than us soon anyway.

Hunt has since said the new line will run to Euston after all (though not, I’m afraid, fast enough to stop me from ranting about it like this), but it’s worth asking how such ludicrous plans end up being considered in the first place. It is, I think, the result of two separate dysfunctions in the British state. One is the phenomenon of “Treasury Brain”, the presence of a finance department that seems to judge things by the single, simple metric of how little they cost. It has no interest in assets, or investing for the future, and no understanding that government action can encourage growth. All that matters is keeping spending down.

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The other problem is that there is a large contingent of voters in this country who would prefer us not to build anything – houses, solar farms, labs for the researchers working on that cutting edge scientific research Hunt keeps banging on about – and the vast majority of them vote for the Tory government. Those two forces together result in a sort of pincer movement, in which it’s just easier never to build anything at all, no matter how much we need it. It’ll save the Treasury money; it may save the government some votes. But it’ll also lock in our decline.

My big fear is that this can and will get worse. Somebody, somewhere, will work out that if they promise they can knock a couple of billion off the price of HS2 by simply not building it at all, the Treasury will say yes and hand them sixty billion quid. Then they can move on to filling in the Channel Tunnel.

[See also: Sunak is finding Tory MPs ungovernable]

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