There is something agreeably transparent about the way Ed Balls has cast doubt on HS2. Like his mentor, Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor wishes to portray himself as a man of prudence: a man we can trust with the nation’s finances. So Mr Balls declares in a stern tone that there will be “no blank cheque” for HS2. He hints that he would be prepared to cancel the project, and questions whether HS2 is “the best way to spend £50 billion pounds for the future of our country”.
To which one might retort: the best is the enemy of the good. The question is not whether HS2 is perfect: of course it is not. The question is whether the balance of advantage lies in going ahead with it. And here it is worth noticing what Lord Adonis, the Labour minister who launched HS2, has to say. The noble lord points out that the great justification for HS2 is that it increases capacity:
“HS2 trebles existing rail capacity between the conurbations it serves, to the benefit not only of intercity services but also local and freight services because of the capacity freed up on the existing lines. Detailed costings that I commissioned in 2009 suggested that to secure just two-thirds of HS2’s extra capacity by upgrading existing lines would cost more in cash terms than building HS2.”
One can, if one wishes, deny that any increase in capacity will ever be needed: a position to which I must admit that I feel some emotional attachment. Is it really necessary, I find myself wondering, for so many of us to rush from one city to another? But let us accept, for the sake of this argument, that economic growth is desirable, and that in order to achieve it we shall need greater capacity for both people and freight to travel between London and Manchester, and indeed London and Leeds.
The question then is how we are to provide that extra capacity. No one, so far as I know, is suggesting that we build new motorways, and Lord Adonis points out that upgrading our Victorian railways is extraordinarily expensive and inconvenient, and produces less benefit than a new line.
When Labour came into power in 1974, it cancelled plans for the Channel Tunnel and for a new airport at Maplin in the Thames estuary. Both these decisions now look short-sighted. Projects which will produce benefits for the next century or two ought not to stand or fall according to the need to balance the books for the next year or two. Mr Balls is muddling up two different timescales.
The Brownites used, as Damian McBride has reminded us, to make themselves feel better by killing off the career of some rival within the Labour Party. Mr Balls is now trying to make himself feel better by killing off HS2. To do this gives him the illusion that he is in command of events. But what it actually shows is that he places short-term political advantage ahead of any serious attempt to plan for the long term needs of our country.