AS David Cameron and Ed Miliband come under increasing pressure from their own supporters – and business leaders – to derail Britain’s HS2 high-speed rail revolution, they should consider a quote from Margaret Thatcher.
“When I’m out of politics, I’m going to run a business. It will be called Rent-A-Spine,” she told The Downing Street Years, a BBC documentary now being repeated which chronicles her time as Britain’s first female premier.
The context was her anger at the Foreign Office’s reluctance to recapture the Falklands after Argentina’s invasion of 1982, and the willingness of diplomats to give up sovereignty of these symbolic islands without a murmur.
Thatcher’s successors will testify that her mantra could be applied to any tough decision facing a PM when supporters of a policy wobble in the face of public opposition and start getting twitchy that they will lose their seat at the next general election. Self-interest has a nasty habit of trumping the national interest – and HS2 is no exception.
The problem is that the Government has lost all momentum after David Cameron summoned the Cabinet to Leeds in January to give HS2 the political seal of approval and begin a lengthy public consultation exercise.
Instead of looking at how the arrival of the 225mph super-train to Britain can transform the North and revive this country’s engineering heritage, the debate has become polarised. Now it is about whether the UK’s largest ever infrastructure project can be built for the budgeted £42.6bn – or whether the bill will double to the £50bn claimed this week by the Institute of Directors or the £80bn “guess-timate” of the Institute of Economic Affairs as both warn that HS2 will be “a grand folly”.
This process was never going to be easy in comparison to the construction of high-speed rail in France, Japan or the US: decades of inertia have seen Britain’s key cities become so densely packed that acquiring the necessary land is costly and time-consuming.
As Chris Glen, the regional chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said so succinctly this week as he threw down the gauntlet to the scheme’s opponents: “We are working with a transport infrastructure that was laid down by the Victorians.
“We are supposed to be one of the top economies in the world and we should have a transport system that matches it.”
This is my five-point plan to get HS2 back on track.
1There needs to be a single, Cabinet-level Minister responsible for HS2 and co-ordinating the political response. After all, the projected cost is four times the amount that Britain spends on foreign aid each year – and there’s a place for the International Development Secretary at the political top table.
2 This political big-hitter would then overhaul the Department for Transport’s HS2 company so its board includes Britain’s finest business and political brains. I’d have Labour’s Andrew Adonis who devised the concept; Michael Heseltine who is a regeneration champion; global economists expert in raising investment money; business leaders to ensure key contracts are won by UK firms; a top auditor to keep control of costs – and expertise from those countries where high-speed rail works.
3I’d like to see the current Transport Secretary, Derbyshire Dales MP Patrick McLoughlin, drawing up plans on how the rest of the rail network, like the East Coast Main Line, can benefit so that the evolution of HS2 coincides with long-overdue improvements to local services.
4 Political and business leaders at HS2 hubs, like Leeds and Sheffield, should be far more pro-active in setting out how th eir cities – and surrounding areas – will benefit from not only faster trains but the new commercial opportunities when the Tetley’s Brewery site in Leeds and Don Valley in Sheffield are regenerated to accommodate new stations.
5 I want the Government to embrace the energy and enthusiasm of music supremo Pete Waterman who says HS2 “is a golden opportunity” to transform the engineering and science base of the UK – while also having the potential to create an unprecedented number of opportunities for young engineers and apprenticeships.
Compare and contrast the optimism of Waterman, a noted enthusiast for the railways, with the doomsayers from the London-based think-tanks who clearly want the HS2 money spent on the capital and nowhere else .
They need to realise that transport policy should only begin at London. It should not end in the Olympic city which continues to receive three times more spending on roads and rail per person than Yorkshire.
And then there’s the politicians – people like long-term Tory donor Lord Ashcroft who has taken one look at the opinion polls and told Cameron: “Scrap it now.” Should an unelected peer, and whose own tax arrangements have been the subject of so much scrutiny, have such influence? No.
I do, however, respect the misgivings of Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor who initially supported HS2 while facing up to the impossible job of making sense of Gordon Brown’s financially ruinous stewardship of the Treasury. Yet his concerns would be negated if far greater emphasis had been placed in the past on financial governance and sticking to budgets – whether it be Armed Forces equipment costs or Yorkshire Forward’s inept supervision of its Digital Region venture. This holds the key to all procurement schemes.
But I despaired when I heard Maria Eagle, Labour’s otherwise anonymous transport spokeswoman, say that she would withdraw her party’s backing if the costs rose above £50bn before her colleagues hinted that Ed Miliband would come out against HS2 at his party conference next month in a bid to shore up his faltering leadership ratings.
How very opportunistic and convenient. The dismal performances of the Leader of the Opposition – and his career whingers like Eagle – should have nothing to do with the future of high-speed rail. Nor should the inevitable hiatus whenever a PM reshuffles his Cabinet, further reason why David Cameron should do more to show that he is in this for the long haul.
It should be about Britain’s very best politicians, business leaders, engineers and transport experts coming together in the national interest to ensure it is built on time and on budget.
For, at the end of the day, the reason so many peak-time trains across Yorkshire are dangerously overcrowded – or are running late – is because successive governments have failed to invest adequately in the railway infrastructure.
If HS2 is not built, and the great cities of North are denied access to a world-class railway, the cost of this policy and political failure will eclipse the £42.6bn budget that has been set aside.
If this opportunity is not grasped, future generations are unlikely to thank today’s leaders for their timidity – or, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, their lack of backbone.
They will just have to put up with roads and rails that are even more congested. Is that the best that Britain can offer for the future? Let’s hope not.