Cheryl Gillan is a former Secretary of State for Wales and is MP for Chesham and Amersham
After four agonising years of gestation, the Second Reading of the HS2 (Phase 1) Hybrid Bill will take place on Monday. Yet the astonishing reality remains that this project is delivering less now than the promises made in the first year it was proposed. Not only will MPs vote on this bill largely in ignorance of the risks associated with this leviathan project, but also blinded by the razzle-dazzle of the enormous PR operation to boost the perception of its alleged economic benefits and regeneration opportunities. No doubt my colleagues will back the Bill, since it directly affects so few constituencies and the three main parties are whipped in favour of the project. But the public’s backing of the scheme is tentative, to say the least, and the loudest voices of support to date have mostly come from those benefiting financially from the proposals.
The worrying sight of the Government blocking the release of reports on HS2, which are the work of the MPA, the organisation set up to carry out assurance reviews where there is cause for concern on major projects and which we know classified the HS2 project as amber/red, should raise questions in everyone’s mind about the project. Amongst the MPA’s stated aims is “to require publication of project information consistent with the Coalition’s transparency agenda. Maybe it should have added “except in the case of HS2”. This decision to suppress publication was made after the Information Commissioner had ruled that it was in the public interest to publish the reports. He has recently challenged this decision to conceal the full reports but, sadly, any judicial ruling will not be available in time for the Second Reading debate.
As originally proposed, HS2 pledged greater national connectivity, direct international links for the North, the “healing” of the North South economic divide, faster journeys, and widespread economic regeneration. Many of these pledges have gradually been watered down over the intervening period.
The Government’s recent decision to scrap the HS1-HS2 link dashes the promise of a direct link to the continent, the Heathrow connection is but a memory, journey times are now only marginally faster, and the business case supporting quicker travel times is low. As for economic regeneration, the evidence continues to suggest that this line will attract more business into London, extract business from areas not directly on the route (as revealed in the KPMG report) and, of course, HS2 will not even reach the North for up to seven years after the original Birmingham to London section is constructed, so we could be talking 2030 or even later……
The price for this project is a large one too, not just in financial terms. The huge environmental impact from London to Birmingham cannot be underestimated: for example, the effect on the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Environmental Audit Committee has recently been highly critical of the project, and uncovered the fact that 40 per cent of the route is yet to be examined; this huge lacuna reflects a disregard that the Government appears to have for the environmental disruption. I hope that, at the very least, full protection for the AONB will be afforded to the Chilterns when the Bill Committee starts to get into the detail of the route.
The finances of this project also pose a real challenge. The budget currently stands at £50 billion at 2011 prices, but this is not the complete picture. The budget does not reflect any interest payment which, since the taxpayer is funding it, should at least be acknowledged. To get some of the benefits the costs of building Crossrail 2 at an estimated £14bn need to be considered too. Then there is the cost of connecting HS2 stations to existing infrastructure, and the cost of property blight which some estimate at around £12bn. Of one thing we can be sure: the bill for this project will rise and rise and the taxpayer will pay and pay.
When I talk to people, they do not list HS2 as being top of their priorities. However ,they talk about wanting our existing transport infrastructure improved, mending the holes in our roads, easing the overcrowded commutes for workers, ensuring our mobile communications are world beating and making sure our airport capacity is fit for doing more business in the global marketplace.
In order to bring HS2 about, the government is in effect calling for the suspension of disbelief. My concern is that the disbelief could be felt by the inheritors of HS2, who will wonder why the risks weren’t properly assessed at the outset.