Martin Tett is the Leader of Buckinghamshire County Council

Screen shot 2013-06-27 at 17.14.28I’m sure the Transport Secretary is a
sincere man, but his article earlier today on this site showed that he is being very poorly briefed on HS2. When a politician has
to resort to classic lines, worthy of Ed Balls, such as "we can’t afford not
to" and "engine for growth", you know that there is a public relations firm not
far behind!

Let’s be clear. HS2 is Labour’s
project. The creation of those great tribal Labour politicians Gordon Brown and
Andrew Adonnis. Dreamed up in the days of classic high-rolling, high-spending
‘Grand Projects’ typical of Socialist Governments everywhere. They set a
political trap for the Conservatives, similar to the 50p tax rate, into which
the Government walked, and now cannot seem to get out of.

Yesterday it was announced that ve before
a single inch of track has been laid – the costs for HS2 had already escalated by
another £10 billion from £33 billion to nearer £43 billion. (It had already
gone up surreptitiously by £3 billion when the Heathrow Spur was dropped from
Phase1). And of course that only buys you the track. The costs of the rolling
stock in already an extra £8 billion (and sure to escalate as well) and, in cash
terms, the operating costs will add yet another £16 billion. This is a
phenomenal amount of money. Were it private capital one might be tempted to say "good luck" to the shareholders, but it is not. This is taxpayers’ money, and we
have an obligation as Conservatives to ensure that such money is spent
only when necessary, and wisely.

Were the business case for HS2 even
passingly good it would be hard to argue against. As local authorities, we often
have to push through schemes that residents don’t always appreciate but they
must always pass the ‘good value’ test. The business case for HS2 is quite
frankly atrocious. Almost every independent analyst has examined it and
condemned it. Even the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders commented that it was difficult
to find an economist who still supports HS2.

The so called ‘benefits’ case
rests on the blatantly absurd assumption, drawing on research from a decade
ago, that business people don’t work on trains. In an era of mobile
phones, I-Pads and laptops this is self-evidently nonsense. In fact the DfT’s
own more recent research (conveniently not used ) shows that train journeys are some of
business people’s most productive time and that shortening journey times
actually reduces productivity! When one strips away all the flawed assumptions
in the Business Case for Phase One between London and Birmingham the project
actually loses 60 pence for every taxpayers’ pound invested in it. The Business
Case for the whole line is little better. How as Conservatives can we defend

Of course the default line of defence
then becomes "well. we are running out of capacity". Interestingly, the DfT likes conveniently to blur the differences between suburban, commuter and intercity
capacity when it suits it. The department’s own figures, dragged out of them in court after repeated Freedom of Information Request refusals, shows that the
West Coast Mainline is only half full at peak evening times!

Is there a problem
with some suburban and local commuter capacity? Yes, but this can be dealt with
far more quickly and cheaply by upgrading the existing network and taking out
‘pinch points’ than spending the best part of £70 billion. In fact, the DfT’s
own comparison shown that the so called ‘Optimised Alternative’ put forward by
the 51 m Alliance of local authorities opposed to HS2 would meet all of the
forecast capacity requirements for approximately £3 billion, and
importantly now would not require a penny of public subsidy!

Finally, of course, the last card is
played by the DfT of ‘North- South divide’ with the inference that anyone
opposing HS2 just does not care about regional inequalities. However, as
pointed out by the National Audit Office, the case for HS2 narrowing regional
inequalities is unproven. Far worse, many experts believe that it will merely
increase the strength of London in the national economy. The real issue here is
the ‘Opportunity Cost’. In other words, what else could nearly £70 billion be
spent on, and would it yield a far better return, not just to the hard-pressed taxpayer
but also to all the regions of this country – to our great cities in
the north, north east, as well as East Anglia and the South West?

The answer is
of course ‘yes’. There are scores of transport and economic development schemes, locally and nationally, with great cost-benefit ratios which could revitalise
our great cities and towns. It is not a question of HS2 or no infrastructure
investment: it is that there are so many far better schemes in virtually every
Parliamentary constituency in the country crying out for investment now and
which would bring jobs and growth now when we really need it rather than in
2033. Ask any local business.

I’m really sorry that
so many Parliamentary colleagues felt obliged to follow the whips yesterday
into the Lobby on the HS2 Preparation, but giving a ‘blank cheque’ for a failed
project just does not constitute an ‘engine for growth’, but rather a ‘black
hole for money’. I hope that by the time of the main Hybrid Bill more
colleagues will have asked the question: why have we fallen for Labour’s Trojan
Horse and why are we not investing in far better schemes now?