We know that the prime minister is a technocrat; a number cruncher; someone who knows the cost of everything.
However, Rishi Sunak does not strike me as a visionary; a risk taker; someone who necessarily appreciates the value of something.
Hence, we are back discussing the future of HS2, a project that has been talked about for fourteen years but has still not been delivered. A scheme that the north was promised. An initiative that will transform the antiquated, Victorian network we now suffer in this part of the world into a twenty-first century, fit-for-purpose public transport system.
It shouldn’t be a debate really, should it? The north and midlands have suffered from sub-standard infrastructure for too many years, which not only impacts on the ability of the regions to fulfil their economic potential, but inevitably has a negative effect on the economic performance of UK Plc too. London is the only part of the country which features in any list of leading economic performing world cities.
So, why the new doubts about what, in rail network terms, is the only game in town?
Apparently, the costs have ‘rocketed’ from the original projection of £55.7 billion to approximately £100 billion. Hardly surprising given the delays, the bureaucratic, inefficient procurement processes, and our politicians weakness in forever prioritising NIMBYism over progress.
Nevertheless is £100 billion such a big number. Given this project will last well into the next century – possibly into the one after that given the UKs record of infrastructure renewal, we are talking about investing £1 billion a year maximum for a system that few suggest is not essential for levelling up the country.
Next, we are told that we should forget this Manchester-London connection and focus on better connectivity of the north.
The problem with this ‘solution’ is that Northern Powerhouse Rail – as it has been christened – is reliant on HS2 happening. There is no alternative plan to deliver a ‘northern link’. Given it has taken us 199 years to come up with this plan for a rail upgrade – how long do you think officials will take to produce a new strategy for the modernisation of our rail services?
The other cry from the naysayers is that we don’t need to get to London half an hour quicker than we already do. Again, this is so naïve and shortsighted as to be bordering on ‘as thick as two short planks’ syndrome. This is about capacity. More trains, at more times, and the ability to move tons of freight off our clogged-up motorways onto rail.
It is, in the end though, all about the economy stupid. HS2 creates jobs. It attracts investment. It increases productivity. Without it, watch investors from India, America, and elsewhere start to look at London or other European cities to invest their cash. Listen to what the new owners of Birmingham City FC said recently if you don’t believe the failure to deliver HS2 will impact on inward investment opportunities.
If you’re still not convinced, if you think the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, reflect on this. Had, at any time, short-term budgetary considerations been the only driver we consider when doing anything that is aspirational and ambitious, we would not have the magnificent Queen Elizabeth line in London, we would not have hosted the London Olympics, and we would not have built the new Wembley. Equally, Manchester would not have been able to use the Commonwealth Games as a key catalyst for its transformation.
In this instance, short term pain – for that, given our current economic position cannot be denied, will result in long term gain. Rishi Sunak needs to bite the bullet and get HS2 done. Otherwise, he becomes the latest politician to fail miserably when it comes to delivering the big ideas that the UK desperately need to halt, and eventually reverse, our worrying decline.