Why Labour should turn against HS2

8:25 am - July 4th 2013

by Sunny Hundal    

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At their summer reception yesterday, IPPR’s Nick Pearce joked to me that I finally agreed with Peter Mandelson over something.

It’s true. I’m glad that Mandelson has finally converted to an argument I’ve been making for a while: that High-Speed Rail 2 is a bad idea.

In one sense the economic and social arguments for and against HS2 have become redundant. The costs are so large and the payoff so minuscule that it’s bizarre to argue that HS2 will seriously regenerate the economy or provide massive payoffs in speed, the environment or re-balancing the economy.

It has now become an entirely political calculation. And this is where I think Labour is badly missing a trick.

The Labour leadership’s thinking in favour of HS2 is summed up by Steve Richards in the Indy today. As a senior shadow cabinet minister put it to me, we have show that Britain is still capable of (and needs!) large engineering projects and investment in infrastructure. The Labour leadership think accepting that we don’t have money to spend on HS2 would make it more difficult to make the case for other big infrastructure projects. Austerity would infect even long-term investment too.

I think that calculation has some merit. But I also think there is a strong political case against HS2.

For one, Labour could argue that the Coalition is now wasting billions on rail just so well-off people can get into London slightly quicker.

Secondly, Labour should be saying they would instead use a large chunk of the money for an unprecedented affordable house-building program. That would not only create more jobs, cost less and make life immediately easier for so many more people – it would help Labour’s key constituency of voters. Labour hasn’t committed to anything serious on house-building as yet.

Thirdly – it can be about looking prudent with money. Labour can paint HS2 as a gigantic white elephant with negligible benefits to look ‘fiscally responsible’ and prudent with money (their current obsession), instead of salami-slicing small bits of social security spending. If you want to make an impression with voters then go large – stop pussy-footing around.

If I was a Labour spokesperson I would put the argument against HS2 this way.

“Labour think HS2 has become a huge white elephant project which offers small benefits to well-off travellers who can get to London slightly faster. It doesn’t represent good value for money for ordinary taxpayers, and we admit we were too gungho about large projects in the past that did not always deliver value for money.

“We would divert a chunk of that money towards a massive housebuilding and schools programme, which offers real investment in our future and better value for taxpayers.”

BOOM! The Conservatives would be in tatters.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Labour party ,Transport ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. Paul Bigland

There’s always a problem when political commentators stray into areas outside the rarefied world of Westminster & the debate around Hs2is a classic example. Especially when they chose to see infrastructure projects as political pawns, rather then checking what they were designed for in the first place.

Because the reality of Hs2 is that it deals with a real problem and a problem that’s not going to be wished away Forget all the more abstract stuff about regeneration. It deals with basics first – the fact that without Hs2 our major rail artery (the West Coast Main Line) will be full by 2024 at the latest.

Hs2 solves that problem and allows us to begin rebalancing our transport networks away from roads and start to tackle another problem that won’t go away -carbon emissions.We’re tied into pledges to massively reduce our emissions by 2050 & without an expanded rail network we’ll be stuck on roads.

The sceptics (and those who never bother asking the experts before coming up with their theories)suggest we can somehow expand our rail capacity without Hs2. They suggest double deck trains (which won’t fit on our network) longer trains (they won’t fit either) or longer platforms (which also can’t fit in most places). The cold hard truth is that even if they were practicable, they don’t provide the capacity, value for money or step change in connectivity that Hs2 does.

There’s also the typically British ‘Europe cut off by fog’ attitude that thinks lessons learned elsewhere don’t apply this side of the channel. There’s a very good reason other developed nations have built new lines rather than make do and mend & we ignore those lessons at our peril.

So,let’s stop talking about the ‘political’ case against Hs2 & start dealing with the realities on the ground: Gridlock on our railways and the social, economic & environmental consequences of that happening.

How depressing. “Britain could invest in this project, but it’s far too likely that people will want to work in big cities and better themselves, so let’s leave them where they belong.”

Very typical Labour thinking, Sunny. When faced with an opportunity to enhance the country’s standing and infrastructure, you turn away to face short-termist partisan gain. Disappointing.

The WCML and ECML will grind to a halt soon. Do you want that to be the Labour message around the world? The UK can’t afford to keep the trains running, but at least those ever so ‘umble working-classes know their place!

3. Baton Rouge

HS2 is a disgusting and pointless project designed to scar the last of the green and pleasant for what, ten minutes of a journey? But let’s be under no illusion. Mandy’s new-found opposition to this stupid project, his stupid project, is nothing to do with environmentalism or because he wants that £50 billion spent more wisely and everything to do with New Labour impressing on Tory voters that they can out austerity the Coalition. Britain is bankrupt and of course if Britain is bankrupt then so is reformism.

4. Paul Bigland

Liam Pennington makes an important point.Do you really want the next Labour Govt’s legacy to be gridlock on the railways through playing politics? What will that do for our environmental credentials as more traffic is forced onto the roads, not to mention the impact on business.

It’s political short-termism of the most stupid kind.

Forget playing politics and deal with the real issues. They’re not going to go away & unless we tackle them they’ll haunt us.

Sunny is the first person to slam the Coalition for this short term political gain, but in a complete volte-face he wants Labour to do it as well over a key and important infrastructure project that is too important to become a political pawn.

We often hear how MPs know nothing beyond the Westminster bubble and don’t live in the real world. But the same could be said of our political commentators and this post by Sunny proves it.

6. John Ruddy

There is one big argument why Labour and the wider left should support HS2.

The Tax-payers alliance is against it.

Paul Bigland: “It deals with basics first – the fact that without Hs2 our major rail artery (the West Coast Main Line) will be full by 2024 at the latest.”

There is no definitive proof for this whatsoever. The Dept for Transport has been less than forthright in its estimates, rebalancing them each time the last one has proved incorrect.

For some time the DfT had been saying that trains leaving Euston are near capacity and that HS2 was the only way of tackling the ‘capacity timebomb’ on the West Coast Mainline. But when finally pushed, after a number of refusals, it had to admit at peak times in the evening in 2011, trains leaving Euston were only 52.2% occupied, 2% less crowded than in 2008, actually indicating a drop in usage (its own figures). No wonder the DfT was so reluctant to release them.

HS2 is a project that has been littered with government PR speak from the beginning. Economy with the truth is the only stimulus for growth this has provided.

8. Paul Bigland

The comments from ‘Geoff’ show the level of deception by those opposed to Hs2, claiming capacity isn’t an issue. Greengauge 21 expose a lot of this:


The antis deliberately ignore important facts.

1: Other operators (like London Midland) operate out of Euston. They ignore them.

2: The WCML is not all about Euston. Many other services use the route along its length.

3: They completely ignore freight services. The WCML is a major freight artery (it’s the busiest mixed traffic line in Europe). Obviously, these don’t use Euston!

The truth is, they have no answers to the problems we need to sort out, so either deny they exist, or distort them.

I seem to have missed you making this argument “for a while”.

Especially as you ran these puff pieces for HS2:

But you are (now) right!

10. Matthew Blott

As others have already mentioned, time isn’t “wasted” on trains as people can work using their tablets and as Britain is a geographically small country the journey time isn’t going to be shortened by that much anyway. Plus technology is advancing so rapidly I’m not even sure the “green” argument works any more. We already have electric cars and self driving cars will be sure to follow. An interconnected highway will be able to manage traffic seamlessly and make much better use of existing roads (up to a third is wasted currently). Spending money on HS2 now is like investing in canals as the railways were being built.

Paul Bigland: “The antis deliberately ignore important facts.”

There have been very few ‘facts’ coming from the DfT to ignore. They tend to evaporate on closer scrutiny.

Labour’s difficulty is they’ve become so attached to the ideology of HS2, they’re now like nodding donkeys to the coalition.

Why isn’t Milliband or Maria Eagle questioning the very serious funding issues arising from the Public Accounts Committee hearings and the concerns expressed by the National Audit Office? Or how the government can justify announcing £billions in austerity cuts in the same afternoon as increasing spending by £10 billion on HS2? Strangely facts they want to ignore. Not the Labour Party I used to know.

But then it’s only taxpayers’ money.

Interesting the tech argument is only used against HS2, not against stopping an increase in air capacity.

And given the optimism bias on the project, it is a bit rich when critics accuse the Govt of being misleading then quoting the maximum figures only (or in Boris’s case in the Telegraph just adding 20 bn on top for the hell of it).

13. Richard Gadsden

HS2 reduces the journey time from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston from two hours to one. It’s not going to divert much traffic from MAN-LHR, or even MAN-LCY – and the best argument for HSR is flight-substitution.

But it does reduce the journey time from Manchester Piccadilly to Paris Gare du Nord from five hours (including a twenty minute walk along Euston Road, dragging luggage as you go) to three (direct). Flight substitution in the whole Eurostar region (the direct destinations are Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne) is going to be on a big scale. Not to mention the capacity increases for railfreight on the WCML and ECML – did you know that there is now a direct container freight service from Chonqing to Duesenberg (11 days) competing with shipping?

Some people may not have spotted this, but HSR in Western Europe is becoming a network, not just a few fixed A-B links. A few extra connections (Perpignan-Nimes) and there will be continuous track from Seville to Berlin. Three separate routes through the Alps will connect down at least as far as Naples. London is connected to this network already; it’s an hour from probably the most important nodal connection (Lille). The rest of the UK isn’t.

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