Graham Stringer, Blackley and Broughton MP, criticises the Conservatives and his own party, Labour
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, claims to be alarmed and surprised by what his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claims are the “out of control” costs of HS2. Next time he enters 10 Downing Street, he should pause and read the inscription on the letterbox, which will tell him he is not only Prime Minister but First Lord of the Treasury. If he and his Chancellor’s claims are true, he has failed in his oversight of expenditure on this project. Given that he was previously Chancellor of the Exchequer there is no hiding place, he is doubly culpable.
He has not only failed to monitor the finances, he and the Conservative cabinet are a direct cause of the escalating budget.
If HS2 is abandoned, any pretence that the Government has a Levelling Up agenda disappears with it
To understand why we need to turn to the expertise of Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University. He has made a study of 60,000 major construction projects from around the world. He has discovered that only 10% came in on budget and in this sense, HS2 is not an outlier. He concludes that there are two main reasons for this; poor planning and design changes.
Unbelievably, 15 years into the project, there has been no decision on the number of platforms at Euston station. Surveys of ground conditions of the first phase were inadequate, leading to extra costs. Of course, delaying parts of the project for two or three years does not save money, it increases the overall cost.
The late Conservative MP, Cheryl Gillan, who represented Chesham and Amersham, convinced the Conservative government that her seat and others would be saved if HS2 was put in a tunnel under the Chilterns, protecting constituents’ rural views and from train noise. In spite of the huge ongoing expenditure on this 10 mile long tunnel, the Conservatives lost the Chesham and Amersham by-election following Cheryl’s death.
Sunak, rather than apologising for his own incompetence, has been touring local radio stations in the run up to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, suggesting that if HS2 is cancelled, we might get our potholes filled in. This is to add an insult to the betrayal of Manchester and the North of England.
The Government is responsible for the exponential increase in the number of potholes by slashing local government grants. How cynical and contemptible to suggest that scrapping a critical piece of national infrastructure will in any way be compensated for by restoring essential and necessary funding for road maintenance.
The construction of HS2 will attack two chronic problems of the UK economy. It will bring jobs and economic growth to the North of England, helping to narrow the North/South divide and it will also increase the United Kingdom’s productivity that has not improved for 15 years. The estimated £6.2 billion increase in output per year is equivalent to every worker increasing their economic output by £680.
If HS2 is abandoned, any pretence that the government has a Levelling Up agenda disappears with it. Although in my opinion the Levelling Up agenda was always camouflage for pork barrel politics, where all the pork went to Conservative marginal seats.
London and the South East have always been prioritised and treated preferentially when it comes to investment in transport infrastructure. Symbolically the cost of the overspend on the Jubilee Line was nearly twice as much as the total spend on transport investment for two years in the English regions.
Crossrail which goes the 73 miles from Reading in Berkshire to Shenfield in Essex travelling in tunnels under London and now known as the Elizabeth Line, was 25% overspent and years behind schedule. This is exactly the equivalent of running a brand new cross-Pennine tunnel from Liverpool to Leeds via Manchester. Crossrail 2 which runs from north to south under London, is now in the planning stage. The combined cost of these 2 projects is likely to equate to the cost of HS2.
15 years ago, London got brand new Javelin trains and the North were left with old diesels, effectively buses welded on to 50-year-old bogeys. The improvement of Reading station and the electrification of the South West line out of London, was six times over budget. There was no talk of cancelling these schemes.
Yes Prime Minister is a better guide to the politics of London and the South East always getting the goodies rather that the mealy mouthed excuses from the Prime Minister.
Talk of the cancellation of HS2 or its actual cancellation leaves the Labour Party, my Party, in a quandary. Some local politicians have suggested a compromise. Prioritising Northern Powerhouse Rail (this is a project to improve rail connections between the major economic centres in the north of England, particularly Leeds and Manchester). This is a mistake. Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 are dependant on each other.
Nationally, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has said we need to examine the books. This isn’t good enough. Labour wins elections when we are optimistic about our future, not when we dither. Cancelling this project damages confidence in our country. In the words of William Hague, we have become an international laughing stock. Labour must not join in this incompetence and should help to restore our international reputation by committing to complete HS2 in full.
Graham Stringer is an occasional columnist for Manchester Confidential. He is the Labour Member of Parliament for Blackley and Broughton with a majority of 14,402 after the 2019 General Election. He was elected to Parliament in 1997. Until 1999 he was on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs select committee, then was a Labour Government whip and subsequently a member of the Transport Select Committee in the last years of Labour Government. Prior to parliament he was the Leader of Manchester City Council from 1984-1996. He is credited for being a principal agent in the return of city confidence and Manchester's regeneration.
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