Paul Maynard is Conservative Member of Parliament for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Follow Paul on Twitter.
So Mark Wallace says he was struggling to find a Tory MP still backing HS2 – how could I resist the challenge to try to explain why I am still being supportive.
Having sat on the Select Committee enquiry into HS2 in 2012, I have sat through hours of testimony, examined a great amount of written evidence, and thought long and hard. And my conclusion is that neither side has done themselves justice.
For too long, the Government sought to justify the project every which way they could – apart from focusing on what really persuaded me (more of that later). Those opposed focused on trying to pick apart the detail rather than examine the strategic case – though they are quite right to keep pressing for maximum mitigation measures and appropriate levels of compensation.
The independent pro-campaign launched cretinous poster campaigns saying “Your jobs or their lawns”. And as for both sides wearing silly badges for PMQs to support their campaign, words begin to fail me.
HS2 is about many things. But it isn’t really about slicing 20 minutes off a journey – not that anyone would say no to it, but it doesn’t justify this scale of investment. It can’t be justified on grounds of reducing pressures at Heathrow – domestic aviation is only a small amount of Heathrow’s business, and as we all know, the future of aviation is a murky area to predict twenty years hence.
Dumping HS2 as a scheme certainly won’t give any Government a £50 billion ‘present’ to spend all at once either – the scheme costs a lot, spread over a long period of time. Give me £50 billion to spend in one go, and I am sure I could find plenty to spend it on that wasn’t a high-speed railway line. Personally, I would prioritise improving links between the great Northern cities – but then the Government has set that in motion already with the Northern Hub scheme in Manchester.
HS2 might be about improving the North’s economic performance, but that depends on local government as much as central government.
The idea that “build it and they will come” is as seductive as it is dangerous. A new rail line, high speed or not, is an important enabler for economic growth. But unless local councils start planning now, the line itself won’t guarantee economic growth in the regions. For that, you need coherent economic development, planning and skills policies in place to take advantage of the opportunities the railway line will bring.
Do nothing, and the likely outcome is that wealth will flow to London – but that responsibility lies as much with local as it does with central government.
What it is really about, at least in my view, is capacity. And there are two types of capacity on the railway.
There are the numbers of seats, for example, and readers will no doubt have read stories of passengers kept in pens at Euston Station at busy times. Opponents of HS2 rightly point out that we could easily increase capacity by lengthening trains and platforms, by abolishing first class perhaps, or redesigning the carriages. All of this would improve the numbers of seats we could purchase as passengers, but only for a limited period of time before over-crowding becomes endemic again. Redesigning fare structures to incentivise travel in the shoulder period might spread demand more smoothly – but the public appetite for complicating the fares structure yet further simply isn’t there.
But what won’t be fixed by the above ideas is the lack of space on the line for more trains, which is where the real capacity pressure is.
As the MP for Blackpool, I have been dealing over the summer with the reluctance of the regulatory authorities to allow two extra Virgin trains to run every day from Blackpool to Euston. Part of the problem is a lack of space for new so-called “train paths”. North of Preston, the line is not especially congested. South of Rugby, it is choc-a-bloc. We need new capacity. And merely suggesting an upgrade to the West Coast Main Line as some are doing is not enough – the last upgrade took far, far longer than intended, damaged the regional economy, and led to untold travelling misery for millions.
We had a taste of it again back in July when the line shut from Preston to Warrington and it was chaotic. An upgrade on the scale required would basically isolate the North West and Glasgow for a decade, with untold wider economic impacts. It isn’t a realistic proposition.
I could easily criticise aspects of the scheme. I’m unclear why it can’t accommodate a link of some sort to Heathrow – and the scheme may need updating if expansion of Heathrow is the eventual Government decision on future aviation capacity. I’m not convinced that HS2 needs to come all the way into Euston – there are examples in Europe with similar Crossrail-like routes where the intercity trains could terminate at an outer station, such as Old Oak Common. That would also ensure smoother connections – potentially – with St Pancras where HS1 terminates, so as to allow more European routes. It might even be cheaper!
For every European example of where high speed rail has made matters worse economically, there is an example of where it has made things better. What matters is the decisions and actions taken alongside the decision to build.
I listen to Labour MPs for Birmingham and Leeds arguing the money would be better spent on Metro networks for their cities – and it would no doubt be great for local residents. But I doubt such schemes would grow the economy as much as HS2 might, since they would merely move people around a metropolitan area, rather than make such areas easier to get to for those wishing to do business.
Many of us, including myself, have written articles about what the Conservative Party needs to do to improve its performance in the North. If the Party turns its back on HS2 – and I don’t believe it will – it is turning its back on the North of England. The consequences are quite clear for our future as a national party, and HS2 is a mark of our commitment to being a national party. Of course we cannot write a blank cheque, of course we should not tolerate ever escalating costs, but HS2 is about our vision for the future of this country, and just occasionally, it is right to be ambitious.