As MPs prepared to leave Westminster for their Easter recess, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury fired an interesting shot across the bows.
Liz Truss, spoken of as a contender for the Tory party leadership, told The Spectator magazine that HS2 could be scrapped as part of a sweeping Government review of all major investment projects.
If we were living in normal times, this fleeting comment would have been seized upon. The biggest public transport infrastructure project in the UK since the Channel Tunnel, kicked into the long grass on the whim of a “zero-based capital review”? It is a measure of our times that, so far, most folk have shrugged their shoulders and muttered, “So what?”
It deserves more attention nationally. For the non-accountants among us, I looked up what it means – a zero-based capital review is when an organisation literally takes the budget back to basics for a new allotted period. Each item, project or service must be analysed in depth for its needs and costs.
If this doesn’t add to the dark sense of foreboding overshadowing the Brexit negotiations, it should. In our region, we certainly cannot let it go unremarked. In January, when Ms Truss announced the review, she vowed to “look at how budgets contribute to human capital, including how much they genuinely boost aspiration and opportunity... we must be prepared to junk the white elephants, the programmes that haven’t worked, and roll back mission creep, where government involves itself in areas the private sector can deliver.”
This is major stuff. And it has huge implications for our region. Is the £56bn HS2 scheme really a white elephant, or a sacrificial lamb? Is Ms Truss spending the Easter break sketching out a potential post-Brexit practice-leadership speech? It might go something like this: “If we are to go forward as a nation, we must prioritise the projects which will really bring prosperity to the country as a whole.”
There is an interesting psychological aspect to noble sacrifice for the good of the nation. Should she pull the plug, the minister would be relying on huge swathes of the north of England and Midlands to back her. This is a gamble. HS2 does not quite divide our region, its people and politicians as Brexit does, but it certainly has the potential to create division and distrust.
So what Ms Truss cleverly hints at is something in return. She told her interviewer: “What really drives local economies is transport around counties, transport into cities. That’s what makes a difference to why a business decides to locate somewhere. We have to be rigorous about what infrastructure is going to maximise opportunities for people.”
With this, she echoes what many of us in the North have been arguing for years. Whilst there is a case for better business links with London, there’s a stronger one for resilient regional economies, a matter which the One Yorkshire devolution campaign pivots upon.
We all know this. I live in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. By an interesting quirk of topography, I can see planes circling to land at Manchester Airport from my bedroom window. Yet, if I was to catch a train to this destination, just 41 miles from home, it could take me two-and-a- half hours.
In contrast, the other week, I went to Birmingham city centre. It’s 100 miles away, more than twice the distance to Manchester. It took me just two hours by train, door to door. How can this be? It’s these kind of journeys which Ms Truss and her department might like to analyse as part of their review.
The existing narrative is that if HS2 is scrapped, it will underline further the jolting differences between North and South. This has long been held as the mantra by which all must be measured, but we may find ourselves readdressing the balance in coming years.
The uncertainty over Brexit so far, has arguably had more of an impact in London and the South-East than it has in the north of England. It is in the capital and its satellite suburbs and commuter towns where house prices are falling.
It is the port of Dover and its concomitant businesses which are preparing for utter chaos and disruption, not the port of Hull. It’s the City of London which is shaking with jitters as Mrs May shuttles back and forth to Brussels, less so the bankers and brokers stolidly doing business in Leeds and Manchester and Birmingham.
It is my sister’s local council – she lives in Maidstone, Kent – which has issued its employees with laptops in case they are obliged to work from home owing to civil disruption, not the local councils of Barnsley or Bradford. Indeed, it may just come to pass that the desirability of a fast rail link from the North to London is the last thing any of us up here want. Instead, what would really help us set the already-tipping balance in motion is a strong, united North. And the best way we can do that is to make it easier to travel from one end of it to the other.