HS2 stays on track
MP’s today voted by 350 votes to 34 to release funds to pay for the preparation of the project – paying for surveys, buying property and compensating affected residents. It is an important but by no means determining step for the future of this most protracted of infrastructure projects. As MP’s will be asked to vote around spring on legislation giving the Government the legal authority to start building HS2.
The Commons vote comes during a week when HS2 has dominated the headlines. On Monday (28th October), while fighting against fallen trees and disgruntled commuters, Network Rail published a report that stated the alternative to HS2 would see 14 years of weekend rail route closures as the lines are updated. Then on Tuesday (29th October) Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin was forced to announce that the Government has lowered the expected benefit-cost ratio from £2.50 to £2.30 in benefits for every pound spent.
Central to the future of HS2 is Labour’s support. David Cameron has stated HS2 will only go ahead if it has cross party support. If Labour withdraws it support, it would effectively kill the project, as the Prime Minster understandably does not want to allow them to use the £42.6bn cost as a significant weapon against his Party for the next 13 years.
Worryingly for advocates of HS2, for which I am one, Labour’s support and rhetoric on the project has shifted in recent months, with the leadership stating concerns about its rising costs. Labour backed the Government in today’s vote but there was only a single-line whip.
Despite their recent reservations, I do not believe Labour will oppose HS2. Firstly, Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, recent criticism must be put in context. It is his constitutional duty to worry about finance. He has been the party’s loudest sceptic about HS2 because he wants to be seen as diligently looking after the taxpayers money. Secondly, blocking HS2 would open the Party to Conservative claims that they are anti-business and anti-growth. It would provide the Government with a readymade caveat to any arguments Labour make against their growth and infrastructure policies at the next General Election.
Finally, and most significantly, the move would be too unpopular in the North, an important battleground for the Party. Reports suggest that 40 MPs turned up to Labour Party’s recent Parliamentary transport committee meeting, which would usually only attract a handful of MPs, to strongly express their support for the project. On Monday, in a letter to Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh, the leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore argued, “It is a ‘One Nation’ investment project and must be at the heart of Labour’s manifesto for 2015.”
HS2 is an opportunity to create jobs, bring investment and build the right infrastructure for future generations. It is an opportunity to build for a united Britain. Now we just need a fully united Parliament behind the project.
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