Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Last week, to the delight of taxpayers, Liz Truss announced that she intended to include HS2 in a review of government projects. Of course, tis the season for leadership pitches, and we’re likely to hear more of these kinds of pledges from Ministers and MPs hoping to win over the support of the Conservative grassroots. But reviewing the financial case for this white elephant – and scrapping the project in its entirety – is not only the popular thing to do. It is the right thing to do.
The case against HS2 is overwhelming – and there are compelling reasons for those on all sides of the political spectrum to take a stand against it. The arguments against HS2 have been made before, but some points are well worth repeating.
The project is already over budget, originally set to cost £56 billion, and now projected to cost up to £100 billion. To put this in context, the UK’s annual defence budget is about £37 billion, and the entire annual budget for schools in England is £39 billion. And what are we getting in return for this money? Minor improvements to speed and capacity for the trip from London to Birmingham. The case for it is so weak that even by hiring 17 separate PR firms, its supporters haven’t been able to convince the majority of the public that it’s a worthwhile project.
Added to that there is the damage to local communities, which will see the track split villages and housing estates in half, force charities and businesses to move, and destroy some of our most thriving communities and picturesque countryside.These criticisms have united such green campaign groups as Friends of the Earth and the Woodland Trust with free market think tanks and business groups, in an unholy alliance that crosses the political spectrum.
It is always worth remembering that most of the commuters who will be using HS2 will be better off than the average rail commuter – who are on average better off than the average Brit to begin with. With the route going through some of the poorest parts of our country, it can’t be right that poor taxpayers would be left paying for a rich man’s train.
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe investing in transport and infrastructure is important. Actually, that’s precisely why so many of us are set against HS2. The most fundamental problem with this project is the enormous opportunity cost of those tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
Whether you take the many studies that predict the cost of HS2 will be approaching £100 billion, or even the official estimate of £56 billion, this is a huge amount of money that should be re-prioritised elsewhere. A recent poll by ComRes found that just 12 per cent of the public feel that HS2 represents good value for taxpayers’ money. The same poll found that 72 per cent believed that the money for HS2 could be better spent on existing railways, and 67% felt that the money should go towards local commuter lines.
We know that Westminster politicians are out of touch when it comes to Brexit, but what about on transport? The majority of the country voted Leave, but politicians overwhelmingly backed Remain. The majority of Brits drive to work in a car or a van, but journalists and politicians get the train to work. I think that’s reflected in political discourse.
There are so many other projects more worthy of taxpayers’ money, which would have a much greater impact on people’s lives. To illustrate this, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has launched the Great British Transport Competition, asking for submissions from across the country for better ways in which this money could be spent to improve transport infrastructure, reduce journey times and make a more positive impact on local communities. These sorts of ventures don’t always get as much attention, as they don’t sound as grand or generate as much media attention for politicians as a nationwide vanity project. But smaller regional investment is essential to how ordinary people get to work and live their lives.
As I mentioned above, policy makers and journalists get the train to work, which might explain why you’re more likely to read or hear about Britain’s railways than roads. But of course the majority of Brits actually drive to work. A recent government survey revealed that 67 per cent of Brits drive to work, compared to 10 per cent who travel by train. Furthermore, motorists and bus users tend to be less well off on average than those who commute by rail, so why is there not more emphasis on fixing potholes, or bringing down the cost of fuel?
For many families, driving to work isn’t a choice but a necessity. Yet they are forced to pay a huge amount of tax – car tax, fuel duty, various congestion charges – in order to make those journeys. Furthermore, a huge amount of money the government takes away from households is spent on subsidising rail journeys and the construction of HS2.
One thing the Great British Transport Competition has showed is that there is a real appetite for fresh thinking. From new bikes to driverless cars, suped-up trams to micro airports, there are plenty of ideas out there. They might not all be possible be right now, but they speak volumes about the public desire to think of the future.
The spending review this year is a huge opportunity for the government to do something popular for a change, by scrapping HS2. It’s the right thing to do, for the environment and for taxpayers, and will also allow for that money to go towards more worthwhile causes.