That’s another PR blow for HS2, Darling
It’s been a bad few days for supporters of the HS2 high-speed rail project, which would link London with the Midlands and the North.
At the start of the week came the Institute for Economic Affairs report which warned that costs for HS2 could head north of £80 billion before it’s completed. That would be almost double the Government’s current budget for the rail link.
Instead of coming out and attacking the report for its inaccuracies, officials from the Treasury then appeared to confirm the rising costs, with the Financial Times reporting that Whitehall’s money men were worried that costs for HS2 could reach £73 billion.
Then, in another blow to the HS2 case, in a by-lined article for The Times today former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling – a one-time backer of HS2 – says project costs could “easily spiral out of control” and would drain investment from other rail projects for the next 30 years.
The Times said Darling’s comments were a “shattering blow to the political consensus” behind HS2.
In his time at The Treasury, Darling (also a former Transport Secretary) gave the green light to the project. Now, he says, his growing scepticism about the merits – and costs – of the scheme have turned him from a supporter to an opponent.
The comments are being seized on by opponents of HS2, who believe the money would be better spent on other transport infrastructure projects, such as upgrades to the East Coast Mainline, or to our motorway network.
With supporters and opponents of high-speed rail on both sides of the House of Commons, this could easily become a political hot potato at the next General Election.
David Cameron has the likes of London Mayor Boris Johnson and former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan telling him to scrap the project, while Ed Milliband has Darling, Lord Mandelson and others saying HS2 is an expensive waste of time.
And in dozens of constituencies that will be impacted by years of line-building work, HS2 will be a potential vote-loser – or winner, depending on which side of the political tracks you’re on.
When it comes to getting your message across, it’s often easier to be an opponent than a supporter. You tend to get more headlines that way.
And it doesn’t help that the rail industry isn’t as good as it should be at promoting itself, but if the scheme is to avoid being scrapped, the PR job for HS2 does need prioritising.
The long-term economic case for HS2 is arguably a strong one, but the Department for Transport (assuming it still wants to go ahead with the project) and HS2 Ltd, the private company formed to promote it, need to get that across. They have to be more bullish in their communications.
As well as pointing out the direct benefits of a new high-speed rail line on construction and on-going operations, they should be highlighting the economic benefits in major centres such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
And they should be demonstrating what will happen if we don’t do anything about our transport infrastructure. Cities will grind to a halt and our economy will stagnate.
Roads and major rail lines are already heavily congested. Upgrading them may create some temporary alleviation, but what do we do while that work’s being carried out? And then what do we do once they’re filled up again?
The key message is that we desperately need more capacity across our network, and separating inter-city from surburban services is a sensible long-term solution.
But the rising budget hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the project’s future, and as the cost estimates rise the number of people prepared to go public in their support for HS2 declines.
And it probably doesn’t help when even the PM comes out with such vague quotes as: “I think it will be a big enhancement to our economy. Other countries are joining the high-speed revolution. We’re a little bit behind so I think it’s right that we catch up.”
You “think” it will be a big enhancement? You “think” we need to catch up? Yes, that’s really nailing your colours to the mast, Prime Minister.
Contrast that with Boris Johnson, who recently talked about “a billion quid going straight down the gullets of lawyers and planners and consultants before you have even invested in a yard of track.” An unequivocal position, as usual, from Boris.
If those in favour of HS2 don’t start to land some decent PR blows soon, it’s a distinct possibility that the high-speed blueprint for Britain will be screwed up and dumped into the nearest waste bin in Whitehall.