The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year. But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.
So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.
9. High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe Bill)
We apologise for the inaccuracy in this article’s title. There is no longer a High Speed Rail Bill in this session because a High Speed Rail Act has already been passed during it.
But we committed ourselves to examining each Bill in the Queen’s Speech briefly, and whether the measure in question has been passed or not is irrelevant to that purpose. This was the second in a series of hybrid bills to which successive Conservative governments are committed in order to implement the scheme.
The Department of Transport – and a long list of Ministers, because the Bill was carried over from the last session, being introduced to the Commons as long ago (relatively speaking) as July 17 2017.
Being a hybrid bill, it has been subject to a special procedure that has produced two select committee reports, and an environmental statement to Parliament.
Carried over or a new Bill?
Neither “sooner rather than later”, the reverse, nor “currently under consideration” – our three usual categories, because it’s already an Act.
There are specific arguments for and against the extension to Crewe (“phase 2A”) empowered by the Bill, itself the first part of an extension of the high speed rail plan from Birmingham to, in its second part, Manchester and Liverpool (“phase 2B”). But these have tended to become subsumed in the case for the project as a whole.
Which falls into two main parts – the economic and political cases. The sum of the economic case is that high speed rail will more speedlily link the South to the North, thus helping to bring the relative prosperity of the latter to the relative poverty of the former. And that of the political case is that the North wants it.
Where to begin? Some of the main economic ones are as follows. That the scheme will actually speed a flow of business from north to south, the reverse of what’s intended. That the total cost, already more than twice over its original £40 billion estimate, would be better spent on other transport projects.
That the scheme is right in principle, but that the routes are wrong. That it is wrong in principle, because the technology wil be out of date by the time the scheme is fully operative in 2040. That the environmental cost is too high to pay. That in political terms the minority disadvantaged by the scheme will feel more strongly about it than the majority advantaged by it (if you grant that premise).
A point that follows from the last is that, since a minority of people and constituencies are adversely affected by the scheme’s construction, not enough voters have been mobilised to generate Parliamentary pressure sufficient to derail the plan. Nor did the main opposition party, Labour, attempt to do so.
Which meant that this Bill was always going to pass through both Houses – like its predecessor and successor (assuming its introduction). The Government will also have been deterred from prospective cancellation by the claim, backed up by supportive councils in the North and Midlands, that the project is evidence of the Conservative “commitment to the North”.
Controversy rating: 5/10
We are picking a figure halfway between the 10/10 that would apply in some seats – such as Chesham and Amersham, where the project probably did more to wreck Conservative prospects than any other single factor – and the 0/10 that would apply in some others. Party members polled decisively against it during the 2019 leadership election.