John O’Connell is Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
On Monday April 22nd, Matthew Bishop and his mum Gerry started walking from their home in Leamington Spa to London Euston. Their goal was to walk along the entire length of the proposed HS2 Phase 1 route, highlighting the sheer destruction to the environment and the damage to local businesses and communities being uprooted to pave way for a new train which, when completed – behind schedule and above budget – will save commuters 20 minutes from Birmingham to London.
They walked around 100 miles over 16 days and along the route they met families forced out of their homes, local business facing uncertainty about the future and saw acres of felled trees in ancient woodland areas. All of this destruction to save 20 minutes on a not-as-high-speed-as-it-was-supposed-to-be train.
Our team welcomed Matthew and Gerry back to London when they arrived, and marched with them from Mornington Crescent to London Euston. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, we’ve been campaigning for this wasteful and destructive project to be scrapped for years.
Time and time again, we’ve called on Ministers to reconsider this £100 billion vanity project. Unless we follow Corbyn’s mantra of magic money tree economics, we have to accept that the Government has a limited budget, and must prioritise the things that are most important. Families in Britain are struggling under the highest tax burden in 50 years, and they want to know that the money they give to government is going to be spent on the things that matter to them, like the NHS and policing. Of course infrastructure projects can be of huge benefit for the economy and for taxpayers, but HS2 comes at the cost of other more important ventures.
Last year, we hit a brick wall. Despite years of campaigning, and support from various MPs and interest groups, HS2 was carrying on regardless. Some of the project’s biggest opponents had left, or were poised to leave, Cabinet. Only MPs with constituencies affected by the route were still standing firm. Despite the efforts of many active groups, like TPA and Stop HS2, campaigners seemed worn down by the negativity. Frankly, the campaign against HS2 felt like it had run out of steam.
But there was also a huge opportunity. With the recurring warnings of spiralling costs, environmental damage and management blunders, the positive vision for HS2 was wearing thin. Taxpayers were demanding more for their money. With a few notable exceptions, few argued the case for HS2 – they simply said we had to get it finished. But what if there was a positive and popular alternative?
Others had already spotted this change, including Bob Seely on this site, so the TPA seized on the opportunity. That’s why we set up the Great British Transport Competition. With the early help and excellent guidance of Craig Tracey, we established that – even on official figures – scrapping HS2 would free up around £50 billion of transport infrastructure funding (even minus all the costs we couldn’t claw back). Recruiting a heavyweight judging panel, including qualified accountants, engineers, surveyors and transport industry experts, we set up a process for taking in and assessing ideas from members of the public. Anyone could submit. The criteria was clear. Costs and timeframes would be second guessed by the judges. Any type of transport project was fair game. As long as it was doable, it was eligible. In September last year, we opened the Great British Transport Competition for entries.
Nothing better sums up the problem with HS2 than the amazing response we received. The alternatives ranged from airfields to supertrams, roads to rail, bicycles to bridges. Many of the proposals for new ideas were interesting, exciting, ambitious and world-leading. Most of them were outside London, across the South West and the Northern cities. They didn’t cost much, but boasted eye-wateringly good cost-benefit ratios. Some were as simple as reopening old lines. Others were as complicated as hyperloop. There was clearly huge demand for doing more, and being bolder and better, with that £50 billion.
With the full results being published, and which are being presented today by David Davis, politicians have two choices. They can carry on regardless, ignore the evidence that HS2 is failing and wait until a coalition of Conservative leadership contenders and Labour MPs from the North kill the project. Or they can pick up the mantle of these credible winning projects which benefit constituencies across the UK – and perhaps get some credit from voters for doing so.
The pendulum is swinging against HS2. The optimistic, bold and popular case no longer lies with an expensive white elephant catering for rich London commuters. The next Conservative leader will have to wholeheartedly oppose HS2 if they want to win. The next Prime Minister will have to offer something to voters in marginal seats outside London. With the tax burden already at a near 50 year high, they’d struggle to raise yet more money to do it. We hope that our Great British Transport Competition gives them the answer.