Why has Labour re-committed to HS2 even before a policy review? [updated]

10:30 am - July 5th 2013

by Paul Cotterill    

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I’ve followed the HS2 debate fairly closely from the start, not least as then represented one of those areas of the North that Peter Mandelson now refers to as a possible “rail desert” if HS2 were to go ahead.

In 2009, I was “broadly supportive” but had concerns about the negative unintended impacts.

By early 2010, when I’d read the documents and surrounding research, I was clear that HS2 was a bad idea, and that regional and local rail projects should take precedence. When the Coalition came in, I was duly outraged at the way poor research methods gave way to downright lies about what research had been done.

So it was with some sense of relief that I wrote of Maria Eagle’s breaching of the HS2 consensus in February 2011, when she stated that:

Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.

It would be irresponsible to make cast-iron spending commitments for beyond 2015 before we have listened to the public and come to conclusions about our future priorities.

Finally, I thought, this was a sensible decision to look at the whole HS2 thing in the round, review that actual research and the actual cost-benefits, and come to a decision based on what would be best for regional economies (and even pro-active regionalization of the economy) rather than on political calculations about how “modern” the party needs to look.

The transport review was duly launched.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, now to read in the FT that Maria Eagle is apparently saying the absolute opposite of what she said in 2011:

Labour’s transport spokeswoman, Maria Eagle, gave a “cast-iron guarantee” that the party would proceed with the project if it won the 2015 election. “It is what we are signed up for,” she said.

Perhaps I’ve missed something along the way, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate that this apparent change of view is the product of the party’s transport review; the review is mentioned in the National Policy Forum’s 2012 Annual report, but there is no reference to HS2, and there is no evidence that I can see of any review of HS2 ever actually being carried out as (apparently) promised.

If it had been, then presumably Maria Eagle would have said so, as a way of putting Mandelson in his place. The website created for the review is dead, as is the twitter account.

So while I’m glad that the consensus now does appear to have been broken, albeit four years too late, this does reflect badly on Labour’s policymaking process in opposition. Perhaps the days when major policy proposals came to conference for a yes or a no vote (even if they were then sometimes ignored by the PLP) weren’t so bad after all – at least we knew where we stood.


Labour’s transport team have now responded. They say Maria Eagle addressed HS2 (as a decision was needed sooner rather than later) in 2011 in this speech.

Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle told Liberal Conspiracy:

Labour is clear that a new north-south rail line is needed to deliver the major increase in capacity needed on Britain’s rail network in the years to come. Labour reviewed this scheme as part of our Policy Review but found that none of the alternative options that have been proposed could meet the capacity challenge on our rail network.

All would involve billions of pounds and major disruption to the existing network during construction, yet wouldn’t deliver anywhere near the extra capacity of a new line, would not cut journey times and would not enable any further transfer of freight from road to rail. Labours is supporting the legislation that is before parliament now to enable preparatory expenditure on the scheme, will support the hybrid bill when it is introduced and will continue to provide the long term cross-party support necessary for the successful delivery of this project.

Under pressure from Labour the Government has set out more details on the cost of the new north-south line, with annual budgets to 2020/21. It is essential that the escalating costs are kept under close scrutiny by Ministers. While long-term investment in Britain’s future is vital it must also be value for money for the taxpayer.

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About the author
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
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Reader comments

You’d think, given the chance to express himself here, that the writer might at least have tried to give some coherent reason why he’s suddenly decided that the north of England should be kept deprived of trasnport links. I’ve been through all the links he’s put to his other pronouncements only to see vague waffle about local services.

It’s ridiculous that HS2 wasn’t built a couple of decades ago. The midlands and the north desperately need fast rail links to the continent.

2. John Ruddy

Totally agree. However, what Labour must do is to ensure that this investment is not at the expense of other, equally vital transport – and especially rail – investment. We need more electrification, re-opening lines to communites to help them access jobs and services, etc.

If HS2 gets cancelled – these other projects arnt suddenly going to materialise. They must be done as well, to complement HS2.

3. margin4error

There’s plenty wrong with the analysis of HS2.

For example, the cost-benefit analysis work assumes that it will be scrapped after 60 years of service. Obviously this is stupid, but then what is government if no stupid?

Likewise, the cost column includes the subsidy to various Tory heartland campaigns in the form of additional tunneling costs – while the alternatives (an upgrade of other lines, for example) ignores all equivalent political sops because we haven’t had to make them.

Meanwhile we lag behind the world on infrastructure (WEF ranks us 24th) and as a result out people keep getting poorer.

So yeah, the issue here is slightly mixed messages from a minor opposition figure.

4. Baton Rouge

If New Labour have suddenly decided that we do have a spare £50 billion contrary to Mandy’s advice I can think of a hell of a lot of more worthy and important things to spend it on than this countryside-wrecking white elephant. Britain can’t even deliver decent broadband properly.

5. margin4error

Baton Rouge

Actually the World Economic Forum’s global study ranks the UK’s broadband sixth in the world on the basis of kb/s per user.

That’s a lot better than our general infrastructure ranking of 24th.

Quite a lot to respond to here, and apologies for delay in getting to it.

1) On the update provided by Sunny, from an email to him from “Labour’s transport team”.

I accept that Maria and her team have acted in perfectly good faith, and that they believe they have gone through the review that Maria promised in 2010. But I think we have a different conception of what such a policy review is.

As far as I can see from the update, the Labour transport team beleive that reading and accepting the findings of Network Rail’s Review of Stategic Alternative to High Speed 2 (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/28572/hs2-review-of-strategic-alternatives.pdf)counts as a policy review.

I don’t, for two reasons:

a) The ‘high level’ review by Network Rail is limited to an assessment of what effect other line upgrading works would have on North-South line capacity. While this is useful, it doesn’t cover an assessment of the factor which most concern many, inlcuding now Peter Mandelson, namely the possible/likely negative wider regional economic impacts of HS2 (what Mandelson refers to as rail deserts, though this is arguably inaccurate – see below).

b) An internal review of a high-level document does not, to my mind, constitute inclusion of HS2 in a wider policy review, to which end a website was set up for member engagement.

2) Chris @1:

With respect, I think you misread my reference to “rail deserts”. This is Mandelson’s wording, and not one I would have chosen. However, what I think he’s trying to get at is not primarily that the North will be deprived of transport links, but that (intra-)regional economies will take on desert-like features as all the economic sustenance is drawn a) to London b) to the areas that do get the HS2 link.

Let me stress that I am not against HS2 in its totality, simply that it may need to be preceded by and fitted into an improved local and regional infrastructure such that as and ehen HS2 does come it doesn’t have the negative ‘suck away consequences that empirical research shows it has had in other countries, but which have not been taken into account in the UK.

Again, this should have been part of Labour’s plicy review, but we have been shortchanged by a so-called review (in good faith) which simply accepts that the most important job of HS2 to resolve current capacity problems (and it is striking the extent to which the Network Rail emphasises the negative impact of upgrade alternative on connectivity within the South East, suggesting that such issues are important there but can be disregarded elsewhere).

Finally, I don’t think it’s fair to critcise a post for not doing what it didn’t set out to do. This post was squarely about the review (or lack of it) process, not about the substance of the HS2 debate.

3) John Ruddy @”:

I don’t think we’re a huge distance apart, but I stress the fact that local and sub-regional improvements need to come first, because if HS2 comes first the drag and suck factors within regions and towards London will have a quick and irreversible effect, thus making sustainable regionalisation of the economy even more difficult in the long term.

4) Marign4error@3:

Maria Eagle may not be on TV every day, but in transport terms she is not a minor opposition figure.

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