COUNCILS in the South-East have been accused of a “disgraceful misuse” of public funds for using more than £1m of taxpayers’ money to fight Government plans for high-speed rail.
Nine councils opposed to the route from London to Birmingham – the first phase of a £32bn network that would slash journey times between Yorkshire and the capital – have spent nearly £1.2m setting up a fighting fund to oppose the scheme.
Tory MP Graham Evans, who uncovered the figures, has even questioned whether the spending by councils in the 51m group – an alliance of 17 local authorities opposed to the current scheme – breaks Government rules on how public money can be used.
The revelation will fuel an already polarised debate on the High Speed Two (HS2) project, which will link London to Birmingham, South Yorkshire, Leeds and Manchester by 2032.
Next week Transport Secretary Philip Hammond will appear before MPs to justify the scheme, which the Yorkshire Post Fast Track to Yorkshire campaign has supported, in the face of opposition in the South-East on environmental and economic grounds. The influential Transport Select Committee is set to deliver its verdict on the project later this year.
Mr Evans, MP for Weaver Vale in Cheshire, said at least nine councils are known to have contributed to the fighting fund, and claimed the money was the equivalent to the council tax paid by 1,000 households.
Describing it as “a disgraceful misuse of public money”, Mr Evans said: “High-speed rail is the biggest step forward any Government has taken to tackle the problem of the North-South divide. My constituents need jobs and growth above all else. They are deeply disturbed that southern councils are paying to keep the North poorer.”
The director of the Campaign for High Speed Rail, David Begg, said: “This is an absolutely staggering amount for councils to be spending in the midst of cuts, particularly to oppose a project that was in all three parties’ manifestos.
“It goes to show what I have been saying all along – the opposition to high-speed rail is incredibly well-funded. Not only are wealthy patrons along the route bankrolling the opposition, but so too, it turns out, are the councils themselves. This serves to drown out the support of ordinary people who are set to reap the benefits if HS2 goes ahead.
“High-speed rail is a necessary investment to secure the future economic prosperity of this country. Without building this infrastructure, a million jobs will be put at risk in the Midlands and the North. These councils are standing in the way of the progress of those living outside of the prosperous South-East bubble.”
But councils in the 51m group, which opposes the current scheme but is not set against high-speed rail altogether, say the project has a “fundamentally flawed business case and no evidenced national benefit”.
The 51m chairman Martin Tett, leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, said: “Our residents rightly expect their councils to represent them in understanding and challenging this proposal. By working together, the 18 members of 51m are operating in the most cost-effective way possible.
“To date the group has spent £470,000, an average of about £26,000, on expert reviews and technical evidence which shows the Government’s case is fundamentally flawed and without merit.
“By contrast the Government is spending £750m of taxpayers’ money promoting this vanity project. Presumably Mr Evans supports the fact that this vast amount is not being spent on schools, jobs, or local road and rail schemes which would bring real regional benefit.”