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Pantomime season is in full swing in Westminster, with HS2 capturing the news again this week as the Government revised down its expected benefit-to-cost ratio from £2.50 to £2.30 for every pound spent, and Labour continued to prevaricate (oh yes they will! Oh no they won’t!) over whether to back the Coalition over funding the high-speed railway line.
So why the controversy? It’s not just the impact on communities and the environment that is debated. The integrity of the business case underpinning the proposed scheme has come under intense scrutiny as pressure has mounted from campaigners concerned about the environmental and financial impact the delivery of the high-speed line stands to have.
The Government has made different arguments about the benefits of the project, moving from emphasising time saved (based on the assumption that people don’t work on trains), through to the benefits of improved connectivity for different regions and the improvements in capacity (which the Government argues will be required over the next decade anyway) that the line will deliver.
The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have expressed concerns about the economic and financial case for the network, particularly in light of an £8bn hike in costs. A number of figureheads including Alistair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Lord Ashcroft have echoed these doubts.
And a rejuvenated Ed Miliband has flirted with the idea of revoking Labour support for the scheme entirely and landing another blow to the Government, on the basis that costs are spiralling out of control and the funds could be better spent elsewhere.
Centre for Cities’ recent review by Dmitry Sivaev shows how difficult it is to make a judgement on HS2 on hard economic evidence alone, as the techniques we use find it hard to predict longterm impacts. This means the debate is one of point and counter-point: supporters stress the importance of capacity, while opponents claim demand is exaggerated. The Government and major cities argue HS2 will support the North; international experience in Spain and South Korea suggests this is not inevitable. Supporters argue a simple upgrade would cause unbearable disruption; opponents disagree.
The most comprehensive assessment of the economics (the 2006 Eddington Review) argued that small-scale improvements will deliver a greater benefit than HS2. Yet international experience suggests that most high-speed rail schemes are supported because of a political vision about the longterm impact of the infrastructure investment on the country.
Yesterday MPs voted resoundingly to proceed with the scheme: 350 – 34. Those in favour of the investment have stuck to their guns, making the case that HS2 will provide a longterm solution to capacity shortages on the West Coast Main Line, and could help rebalance the economy over the long term. Labour, no doubt wary of damaging relationships with city leaders from their own party who stand to gain from the HS2 investment (who have been outspoken about the need for Labour to back HS2), have fallen into line and will support the Government – for now.
So what should happen next? The ‘will they, won’t they’ politics of HS2 will not disappear overnight. Many continue to harbour doubts about the economic, financial and political case for supporting HS2, and the Labour party could yet withdraw their support. Equally, supporters (in the Labour party and elsewhere) are campaigning hard to demonstrate the need for a project of this nature, with individuals as diverse as Sir Richard Leese (the leader of Manchester City Council), Steve Norris and Matthew Parris arguing in favour of HS2 at a recent Spectator debate.
There will be many more financial and political hurdles over the coming months and years as delivery is stepped up, not least the debate on legislation granting government compulsory purchase powers, which is due in the spring.
With yesterday suggesting HS2 is more likely than not, however, increasingly the focus should shift to helping those cities that the new line connects extract maximum economic benefit from it.
That means providing access to the line for residents and businesses by fully integrating the new infrastructure with existing local transport networks, and ensuring that stations are within easy reach of dense city centres. Tickets must be affordable for commuters if the anticipated ridership numbers are to be achieved, and the pressure is to be relieved from existing West Coast services.
And most critically of all, HS2 must not be delivered at the expense of other, more incremental local transport improvements which are vital not only to the success of HS2, but also to the wider UK transport network.
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