By Matthew Barrett
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Today's Sunday Telegraph carries the following Boris quote:
"I am not viscerally hostile. I am a passionate supporter of HS2 in principle, but it has to be right for London. And there are important aspects of HS2 which are not right. This is not the end of campaigning against HS2. This is not even the end of the beginning. This is the beginning of the middle of the beginning. There is no point spending this much on something which doesn’t work properly. The business case needs to be properly made out."
This seems to be Boris' first major assault on HS2 since last summer. It's a fairly reasonable one: HS2 is expected to cost every family in the country £1,000 (but expect that to creep up every year construction goes on), it is expected to provide limited benefits for a relatively small number of passengers, and it won't be open for several general elections. The TaxPayers' Alliance says (pdf) it will cost £500million per minute saved on the London-to-Birmingham journey.
It is quite sensible for Boris to oppose HS2 in his re-election year. Quite apart from the numerous national problems with HS2, there is the small matter of the homes in London hit by the scheme. The Sunday Telegraph reports:
"As mayor, Mr Johnson can veto any planning application in London. Though this power is unlikely to apply to HS2 itself – which will be built under its own special parliamentary bill, bypassing the normal planning process – he could still cause significant problems and delays for preparatory work if he remains dissatisfied with the project. Though more attention has been given to potential victims in the shires, the largest number of people losing their homes are in the capital."
The bewildering thing about HS2 is that the Government could have abandoned the project with relative ease. After Philip Hammond vacated Transport last year to replace Liam Fox at Defence, his successor, Justine Greening, could have quietly shelved the project alongside other such white elephants with costs far exceeding benefits.
Instead, the Government pressed on with it. The reality is that governments cannot predict economic activity next Tuesday, let alone in 2026. By that time, the overwhelming bulk of business opinion may well have shifted against HS2 as a viable path to increased economic activity in the Midlands (and, perhaps by about 2050, the North).
There are no significant political benefits to giving HS2 the go-ahead. If we imagine the post-2015 political environment will return to normality and Parliaments sit for four, rather than five, years, then a Conservative-led administration will have to have won the 2010, 2015, 2019, 2023, and 2027 general elections in order to reap any real rewards from increased business in the Midlands (assuming HS2 is even completed by 2026, which is probably optimistic). To win five successive general elections seems unrealistic. Lord Liverpool managed four, and only Walpole managed five, but in both cases, the makeup of the electorate at that time is best described by Blackadder: "Good evening and welcome to the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election. The first thing I must tell you is that the turnout has been very good. As a matter of fact, the voter turned out before breakfast."
However, even if the Government managed to win five general elections and saw some economic benefit in the Midlands, the TaxPayers' Alliance notes "HS2 will never produce a financial return. The value of the net operating profit once it has been built only covers 42 per cent of the capital costs over a 60 year project life." It is likely, therefore, to be a perpetual economic nuisance. The TPA's statistic also highlights another downside of HS2: if the scheme was so necessary for business to succeed in England, it would have been built without the Government's help. Rail infrastructure specifically designed to benefit businesses should be left to the market.
These are all long-term considerations. In the meantime, the Sunday Telegraph reports there will be legal action against the Government on environmental grounds, on failing to consider alternative routes thoroughly, and a third legal action on the grounds that "the Government’s four-month consultation exercise was a sham geared to a predetermined outcome". These cases are likely to drag the Government's popularity down further in affected areas, and further make the case against HS2. As Boris said, "This is not the end of campaigning against HS2. This is not even the end of the beginning. This is the beginning of the middle of the beginning."
> Paul Goodman wrote earlier this week: There's no reason to expect swift Ministerial resignations over HS2.