This article was first published on Lib Dem Voice and got a mixed reception…
Last week’s report from the National Audit Office contained no surprises. But it was still devasting for High Speed 2. The complexity of the project was underestimated. Costs are ballooning. Value for money is deflating. The political uncertainty surrounding the project, especially the northern sections, will load more costs. It is “impossible to estimate with certainty” how much HS2 will eventually cost, the auditors conclude. But it will be north of £100bn. That dwarfs into insignificance the cost of a third runway at Heathrow.
The drain on public finances is not the main problem. HS2 is environmentally destructive. Far from being green, it will destroy centuries old biodiverse landscapes. It will take a century for the scheme to pay back the carbon and environmental costs of construction.
HS2 is a London centric vanity project. The Lib Dem leadership should withdraw support for HS2 and declare it dead in a ditch.
On the morning that the country was suffering a bad head after the general election, HS2 published an updated environmental policy. Gone is the commitment “seek environmental enhancements and benefits” or reinstate agricultural land. The pledge to “protect water resources” was quietly dropped.
The chief executive of HS2 Ltd has admitted that it will be a century before the carbon costs of construction have been repaid to the environment (£). HS2 is so badly thought out the company still doesn’t know how to get enough water to tunnel though the Chilterns AONB. There are justified fears that construction work will shrink aquifers and dry up chalk streams, damaging their rare ecosystems.
The Woodland Trust said HS2 will destroy or irreparably damage five internationally protected wildlife sites, 693 local wildlife sites, 108 ancient woodlands and 33 sites of special scientific interest.
All that HS2 can offer in compensation is tens of thousands of saplings that won’t be capable of supporting a biodiverse environment for decades. It even lets those trees die because it is cheaper to replace them than nurture nature.
The environmental case HS2 doesn’t stack up. The economic case doesn’t stack up either.
We need economic heartlands that work for their region. Powerhouses that work without relying on decisions by Whitehall mandarins and constant travel to and from London.
That requires a change in thinking. It means moving away from mega infrastructure radiating from the capital towards a dipole of the south and the north. Bring Scotland into the equation and make it a tripole. Add South Wales and Belfast. These powerhouses will need connections between them. But they don’t need high speed travel in and out of London. Birmingham and the Black Country are on the up. The region needs to work with London, not depend on getting to it at high speed.
But no politician ever got a knighthood or elevation to the Lords for tweaking, adjusting or improving a system to make it more efficient. No engineer ever made national headlines or got an award for making things work better in a way that no one notices. Our media, political and professional culture is for tub thumping successes (and failures). We demand real big toys for real big boys (and girls).
We must abandon this swaggering approach to infrastructure projects. We need a sensible incremental approach to upgrading our existing rail networks. Reopening lines. New routes and links. Longer trains with longer platforms. Classy rail stations. Electrified lines. Low carbon trains running on batteries and hydrogen. Bus linking with rail stations at the right times. That won’t happen overnight. It will be costly. But it will be better value for our environment and economy than HS2. It will push technological innovation as engineers and scientists grapple with the challenges of bringing a post-Beeching network into the 21st century.
The Lib Dems have rightly ruled out at third runway at Heathrow. But our support for HS2 remains a London centric policy. It conflicts with our values on a fairer Britain and protecting the environment.
Our party is saying the regions outside the South East cannot survive without London. But those of us that live in the South East know we can. We know we must. And that is why our party must abandon the financially wanton and environmentally destructive vanity project we know as High Speed 2.