One of the ironies of HS2 is that it has caused more trouble than any other railway line in Britain – despite the fact that not even an inch of it has yet been laid. The government’s problem seems to be that it doesn’t quite know how to sell the project to the public. For many people – and I proudly admit to being one of them – HS2 is the most shameful waste of money on a major project by the British government since the construction of that hideous New Labour totem, the Millennium Dome. I am entitled to this opinion because I’m a British tax-payer and I don’t want my money misspent on a 225 mph oversized toy.
The whole HS2 debacle reminds me of a particular episode of Yes Minister, when the hapless Minister for Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker, gets fobbed off with the role of ‘Transport Supremo’, after everyone else refuses the brief. Hacker’s Permanent Secretary, the legendary Sir Humphrey Appleby, informs his minister that the real sobriquet for the job is actually ‘Transport Muggins’, and the rest of the episode is spent with the pair trying to get out of being responsible for the government’s integrated transport policy. The real life Transport Muggins is the Rt. Hon. Patrick McLoughlin, the unfortunate Transport Secretary, who has a hard enough ministerial brief as it is, without having to deal with the vagaries of HS2.
The bee in my bonnet over HS2 is not financial, it’s environmental. Let me make one thing clear – I love the English countryside just as much as the next dog walker, but I am not overly sentimental about it. I know that families need affordable homes to live in, renewable energy installations need constructing and the dilapidated transport network desperately needs updating. In real terms, this sadly but inevitably means building more houses, more wind turbines and more roads and railways in our green and pleasant land. These very expensive things need doing – but not at any price – and certainly not at a cost of £50 billion + (and the rest). This is money that is desperately needed to improve the country’s existing rail and road networks (if you’re not a regular commuter, take an early morning train from Great Malvern in Worcestershire to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and you’ll see what I mean).
While you’re at it, go for a long walk or cycle next weekend through the ancient beech woods of the Chilterns or South Northamptonshire and you will see why HS2 – or anything else for that matter – simply cannot be allowed to rip up fertile farmland and fell broadleaf woodland that have stood undisturbed for centuries. It would be a crime – yes a crime – to allow these areas of outstanding natural beauty to be destroyed forever because a handful of businessmen want to get to London a few minutes earlier than they do at the moment.
Big companies can usually be relied upon to embarrass the government. In HS2’s case it has been KPMG. In a remarkably boring report, commissioned by – you guessed it – HS2 Ltd, this ‘professional services company’ (whatever that means) claimed that HS2 could boost the UK’s economy by £15 billion a year – an absurd claim, and one that is impossible to substantiate. KPMG’s corporate tagline is ‘cutting through complexity’: in the case of HS2, the only thing they’re helping to cut through is the beautiful countryside of the south midlands. The fault however, for HS2 does not lie with the professional companies who are employed to facilitate it. It lies with the generations of politicians and civil servants who cooked it up and signed it off, doing so after running the country’s aging rail network into the ground by decades of chronic under-investment and line closure.
Labour could try and make up for the vast amount of money it squandered when in office by opposing HS2, but whether it will or not partly depends on whether Balls has the political balls to do it. Labour – like UKIP but unlike the Lib Dems – know that HS2 is deeply unpopular with Johnny Voter, but unless it becomes a known vote winner, Team Miliband are unlikely to go out on a limb to oppose it. And even if HS2 is completed by 2099 or whenever, almost no one will be able to afford a ticket on it anyway.