As the MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire, Rishi Sunak loves nothing more than a chance to display his honorary Northerner credentials.
When he’s not lying by the pool or playing tennis at his £2m manor house, the Prime Minister likes to demonstrate empathy for the challenges facing surrounding rural communities by rolling up his shirt sleeves and posing for pre-arranged photoshoots with sheep.
Yet what better way to prove that the Government is “absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country”, as Sunak laughably claimed over the weekend, than slamming the brakes on plans to build HS2 to the North of England? Not only that, but in the week before the Tory conference kicks off in Manchester – proving once again that the Prime Minister really is a hopeless political operator.
Boris Johnson described the timing as “the height of insanity,” while former Tory chancellor George Osborne and ex-Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine warned against a “gross act of vandalism” that would leave the North and Midlands “abandoned”.
Still, assuming the reports about the demise of the northern leg from Birmingham to Manchester are true, then surely the Prime Minister should double down and scrap the entire HS2 project before it’s too late?
There will be many that scoff at such a suggestion. You only have to look at the widespread disbelief that has greeted the idea of ending it in the Midlands to imagine how controversial it would be to pull the plug altogether. There would be indignation in some quarters.
But it would actually be the sensible and prudent thing to do. The case for HS2 never really stacked up from the start. The benefits have always been greatly exaggerated, and the drawbacks deliberately overlooked.
It’s been quite clear for a while now that cost overruns risk turning the entire project into a bottomless money pit. As the boss of HS2 himself conceded earlier this year, the impact of double-digit inflation has been “significant ... whether that’s in timber, steel, aggregates ... labour, all our energy costs, fuel”.
The writing was on the wall back then, despite transport minister Huw Merriman insisting that the Government remained “absolutely committed” to HS2. Now Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary who is now Defence Secretary, has conceded that it would be “irresponsible” to keep spending money on it. The Treasury did not have “infinite” money, he helpfully pointed out over the weekend.
The estimated cost of building HS2 in its entirety has spiralled from £20bn at the 2021 general election to as much £107bn today. With that sort of money, you could build a third runway at Heathrow, and Sizewell C nuclear power station, and have a chance of sorting out the NHS – and still have money left over.
If “levelling up” truly is the aim, then invest the whole lot on building faster connecting lines between all the major cities in the North and the Midlands, where rail travel continues to be desperately poor. But if Sunak is bold enough to scrap the Birmingham-to-Manchester part (the eastern leg to Leeds was axed in 2021), then what sense is there in continuing at all?
Either commit to building the whole thing or don’t build any more of it. It is death by a thousand cuts. The case for HS2 just gets weaker and weaker every time it is pared back, particularly since it is being reported that the Government is also considering ending the line into London at Old Oak Common in North Acton in the north-west of the capital.
That would be the mother of all halfway houses and an even bigger monument to this country’s shambolic attempts at creating major infrastructure. As several eagle-eyed critics have pointed out, stopping at Old Oak Common, instead of taking the line all the way to Euston, would mean journey times would take longer than they do currently because commuters heading for central London would be forced to hop on to the Elizabeth Line to complete their journey. Surely, at that point the entire concept simply evaporates.
The trouble with trying to have a sensible conversation about HS2 is that there are too many people either with a vested interest in seeing it continue, or who have staked their reputations on it happening. You only have to witness the backlash to the latest reports to know that there are a great many folk who can’t afford for it not to happen. HS2 became a gravy train for an army of overpaid executives, consultants, and lobbyists long ago.
As of April this year, an astonishing £289m had been spent on design fees alone for HS2’s problematic Euston station plans, according to the Architect’s Journal. Even more incredibly, those plans look as though they could be permanently shelved.
Its proponents point time and again to an entirely hypothetical halo effect that will see the wealth of neglected towns and villages along the route magically transformed. Yet, try telling that to the homeowners whose houses have been described as “completely unsellable” in some parts of the country because buyers don’t want to be anywhere near the route because of the noise and disruption.
They also argue that having spent tens of billions of pounds already it would be inconceivably wasteful to stop now. But what could be more economically and financially illiterate than spending even more on what was meant to be a high-speed train line only for it to be slower than the old line?
There can be no improvement in the country’s finances until the Government learns to stop throwing good money after bad.