Comment: Politicians must put brakes on HS2 plans

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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NEVER underestimate the capacity of politicians to press ahead with a white elephant project in the teeth of strong contrary evidence about its need.

They can come down with a nasty case of conviction politics, dismissing opposition to their pet grandiose schemes as a mixture of stolid myopia and nimbyism.

But there is such a welcome momentum behind the mounting attacks on the questionable wisdom of the High Speed 2 rail link that I think there may just be a decent chance of a political rethink. It would be welcome.

With each forensic examination of HS2’s merits at parliamentary committee level, it becomes clearer that the project is fraught with major cost risks and environmental damage from the north of England (and eventually Scotland) to London for something that is not necessary. Politically, it is gratuitous grandstanding, and it is right that the coalition government emperor is being told about his new clothes.

The key rationale for HS2 is that shorter journey times on a new Y-shaped line from London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester will be good for the business community and help galvanise regional economies. Proponents of the project assume that faster trains on a new network will produce £21 billion (suspiciously round figure) of economic benefits because business passengers will spend less unproductive time reading the paper or staring at the cows and fields of rapeseed.

The House of Commons public accounts committee has been playing a blinder recently on various issues, including multinationals not crazy about paying tax in Britain.

Under the agreeably acerbic chairmanship of Margaret Hodge, the committee concurred this week with a 2009 report for the Department for Transport (of west coast mainline faulty franchise arithmetic fame) that people use laptops and mobile phones these days. The HS2 analysis has not included this basic socio- economic game-changer. Business people do business on the train (sometimes annoyingly so, but that’s another story). It is hard to believe that wealth-creating deals and business initiatives will wither on the vine just because a corporate suit or entrepreneur doesn’t get into Birmingham 25 minutes earlier than they do now.

The grilling of a senior DfT mandarin on such lacunae in the rail scheme comes days after the cost of HS2 was lifted by nearly a quarter to an eye-watering £42.6 billion. And which other major British projects, from the Channel tunnel to Holyrood and Wembley stadium, have ever been delivered on time and at cost?

Far better to spend, say, one-third of the current cost projections in improving existing rail and road links in austerity-ravaged Britain for everyone, rather than launch a runaway HS2 train that business people don’t need.

RBS view should help inject confidence

THE launch by Royal Bank of Scotland of an independent review into its lending to small and medium-sized businesses is welcome. The appointment of a City grandee, Sir Andrew Large, to lead it also gives confidence that the exercise will not just be cosmetic.

Taxpayer-owned RBS has been made a political football, particularly on SME lending. The bank has said it wants to lend more to SMEs but the demand isn’t there, while policymakers raise eyebrows. An independent review should inject greater clarity.