The cost if HS2 is abandoned

AS economists and environmentalists unite against Britain’s HS2 high-speed rail revolution, the most pertinent question is this: will travellers in 2063 thank Ministers if they cave into pressure from lobbying groups like the Institute of Economic Affairs and Campaign for the Protection of Rural England?

No they will not. The country’s rail network is already operating at capacity – and struggling to handle the record rise in passenger numbers. And with the UK’s population continuing to grow – this month’s figures show that the number of residents grew by 419,900 in the past year to 63.7 million – the rail and road network will come under even greater strain as the years and decades pass.

As such, the Government deserves credit for putting the long-term interests of the country before short-term considerations; too much policy-making is dictated by focus groups and opinion polls rather than the bigger picture like HS2’s potential to transform the economic fortunes of cities like Sheffield and Leeds which will find themselves at the fulcrum of the new network.

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The problem is Whitehall’s reputation for not being able to keep costs under control, a failure that has led to the London-based IEA claiming that the final bill could double in size for HS2 and that the priority should shift to local transport schemes that will yield a greater financial return. These will presumably in or around the capital and at the expense of regions like Yorkshire, given the extent to which transport funding is skewed in favour of London.

Given this, the Government’s challenge is a simple one. It needs to demonstrate, at every turn, that costs are being properly managed as Ministers proceed with the biggest infrastructure project ever to be undertaken in this country.

At the same time, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin needs to provide clarity and resolution by setting out to the IEA – and other HS2 sceptics – the long-term cost to Britain’s economy if the Government does not go ahead with a scheme which has the potential to transform train travel, and also free up much-needed capacity on existing routes like the East Coast main line.

Credibility crisis

IN defending Ed Miliband’s leadership, Don Valley MP Caroline Flint was echoing Margaret Thatcher when she said that politics is not a popularity contest, but about leaders taking the right decisions.

The problem, from Mr Miliband’s perspective, is that he is neither popular nor prepared to tackle the issue of economic competence following the financial ruin bequeathed to Britain by the last Labour government.

With only one in five people saying that the Doncaster North MP is doing ‘a good job’, these are difficult times for the Labour leader who continues to oppose every coalition cut without articulating what he would do if he was in power.

This inertia is made even more perplexing after Mr Miliband correctly identified the plight of the ‘squeezed middle’ at the outset of his leadership – and how these floating voters were paying the heaviest price of all in the age of austerity.

However Labour has not followed this through by setting out how it would cut energy prices, cap increases in rail fares or reinstate those town hall services now being compromised by the Government’s council tax cap after this bill more than doubled during the Blair-Brown years. It continues to oppose for the sake of opposition’s sake rather than accepting the financial reality of these still challenging times. Indeed Labour’s long-term approach to deficit reduction could actually have seen these bills go up even further to pay for the Treasury’s increased interest payments.

This policy void will not be solved by Mr Miliband sacking under-performing shadow ministers – the forthright advice that he was given yesterday by John Prescott – and replacing them with even more inexperienced political operators.

They, too, will become immediately hamstrung unless Mr Miliband is prepared to take on his 
trade union backers and 
face up to his growing 
crisis of credibility before it is too late.

Fashion faux pas

AN award-winning actress whose portrayals of both the Queen and the Queen Mother have won critical acclaim around the world, Dame Helen Mirren is, in many respects, a natural choice to be one of the faces of Marks & Spencer’s autumn campaign which will feature 10 leading ladies from the world of theatre and showbusiness.

She is the archetypal 
M&S customer – a successful individual keen 
to support the British fashion industry and still willing to put their faith in 
a high street institution which can trace its roots back to its Leeds Market origins in the 1890s.

Yet, while celebrity endorsements are now critical whenever a 
retailer undergoes a 
major make-over, the 
future fortunes of M&S 
will not hinge on imagery 
of Dame Helen, but whether the store offers the quality, value for money and customer care that saw it become Britain’s first retailer to record a £1bn profit in 1998.

On recent evidence, this high street bellwether has much to prove if it is 
to revive its flagging fortunes.