John Humphrys – Has HS2 Come off the Rails?

August 04, 2023, 10:57 AM GMT+0

I’m not sure I’ve ever kicked off one of these columns with an insult, but there’s a first time for everything so here goes: “They couldn’t organise a booze-up in a brewery”. OK, the original might have had a more vulgar phrase than “booze-up” but you get the drift. And it came to mind this week because of the many and varied attacks on the progress of one of the biggest engineering projects a British government has ever embarked on.

I refer, if you hadn’t already guessed, to HS2. The so-called high-speed railway that was meant to connect London to the north with extensions to the north-east and north-west. But that – and it’s a very big “but” – is not going to happen. At least not any time soon. The question is how much it matters to you both personally and professionally and how crucial is our railway network to the nation’s prosperity and cohesion.

There is one word that has been used most often in this past week to describe the progress on HS2. That word is “disaster”. The project’s many savage critics have been vindicated by a report published by one of the most authoritative public watchdogs in the land, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

Its methodology is to examine in great detail, using the leading experts in the field, what was promised when a project was launched, how much progress has been made in delivering that promise and how likely is it that the original promise can be delivered. It applies a series of colour codes to each project. The best are awarded a green code. Next comes amber. The worst is red. What it means is that a successful delivery is deemed “unachievable”. Not “challenging”. Not “unlikely”. Unachievable. HS2 is red.

In the words of the report: “There are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable”. That is as damning a verdict as it is possible to reach.

The financial management of the scheme tells part of the story. A total of £20 billion has already been spent. Some experts say it is far higher than that. When HS2 was announced it was expected to cost £37.5 billion. That has risen to £70 billion. At least. And what about the timetable? We were told it would be completed by 2026. Then we were told it might be 2029 – or perhaps 2033. Quite a difference. Now we are being told by the most respected experts in the field that what was promised can never be delivered. Or at least not in any shape that even resembles what we were told we’d get.

This was the verdict of William Hague, former leader of the Conservative Party, in The Times: “It means the overall viability of the whole thing might have to be reassessed. In laymen’s terms, it is like ordering a package that never arrives or has to be returned because it is damaged. Your order has been seriously screwed up and you would want your money back.”

Only one in ten of the projects listed in the report are red. The vast majority are given an amber. There are many significant projects under reasonable control. But, as Lord Hague points out: “The biggest single item in the whole report, taking up about half of all national spending on rail infrastructure for many years to come, is considered by the experts to be an almost unspeakable mess. You search in vain for the special chapter or additional appendix that surely will expand on this damning assessment. But there is no such explanation and HS2 is not mentioned in the text of the document. It just sits there in a list, as if it is a small detail. Red. Unachievable. Tough luck and have a good holiday.

“If I were still in government, I would be climbing the walls about this. I would want to stop all work on HS2 today, but I know I would be told that the contracts signed for its construction make that impossible. I would want to fire somebody senior, but I would be informed that the chief executive of HS2 Ltd already quit last month so that satisfaction would be denied me.

“Then I would say that if we can’t cancel it we should at least make sure that the bits that haven’t been abandoned will work well, but I would be told that the cost of making it start in Euston has doubled recently, that no one could decide how many platforms they wanted to build, that this crucial part is currently unaffordable and that the transformational, high-speed connection of Birmingham to central London might not even reach the latter. And then I would want to scream.”

Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP who has said she is resigning from Parliament but hasn’t actually done so, has said the first thing Keir Starmer should do if he wins next year’s election is to make a quick and unequivocal announcement that he would scrap HS2.

“To put it simply”, she writes in the Mail, “the world has moved on since HS2 was first mooted. It would be a far better use of public money to invest in a proper east-west rail link than simply to shave a few minutes off a London to Birmingham train journey - a time saving immediately cancelled by having to travel across London. Frankly I have my doubts this project will ever be finished. But if it is, it will have bled the taxpayer dry, destroyed countless livelihoods and ripped the country in half for almost no discernible benefit.”

In its leading article The Times says when it comes to building big infrastructure Britain is a laggard. It gives several examples of projects that prove it: “The road-building programme provides horrific examples of excess costs. The planning process for the Lower Thames Crossing, which is intended to relieve the constantly-jammed Dartford Crossing, has so far cost more than it took Norway to build the longest road tunnel in the world, and it is nowhere near complete.

“National Highways estimates that it will cost £400-500 million to add a lane to the four-mile A46 Newark bypass. For the same price, California built 22 miles of express lanes in both directions for Route 101. It costs twice as much to build an urban rail system in Britain as it does in Germany and three times as much as it does in France. The per-kilometre cost of HS2 is coming in at more than six times the European average for high-speed rail.”

All this, it claims, is not because Britain builds better infrastructure than the Germans, the Americans or the Norwegians. It’s partly because of the “excessive deference that the planning system shows to local objections. Most of the extra cost of HS2 is the result of viaducts and tunnels that have been grafted on as a result of objections to the original design. The Lower Thames Crossing has been subject to five public consultations, and there will probably be more of these paralysing exercises.”

And it offers some examples of where environmental regulations are partly to blame. One is Orsted, the Danish wind power company building a wind farm off the Yorkshire coast. It was told it had to commission 13 wildlife studies, including one into the impact of the project on hazel dormice, red squirrels and freshwater pearl mussels. That might be fine – except that none of them have ever been found in the areas affected by the project and its transmission cable. The more environmental laws there are, the more scope there is for judicial reviews, which have become increasingly common.

The Times adds: “Thanks to the politicians, it’s getting worse. National Planning Frameworks are supposed to smooth the path of big projects, but ministers’ failure to update them has resulted in confusion and vulnerability to judicial review. And while the European Union is dialling back on environmental regulations, Britain is dialling up. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill requires Britain to maintain environmental regulations at least as rigorous as those it was subject to in the EU. Meanwhile the EU is rolling back rules where they impede the building of new green energy projects.”

So what do you make of all this? Do you think HS2 should be scrapped even though we, the longsuffering taxpayers, have already spent a fortune on it? Would a faster rail link between London and Manchester benefit the nation economically or make any difference to your own life? Do you think there are too many rules and regulations designed to protect the environment? Or do you agree with the green campaigners that we have only one environment and we must do everything possible to protect it whatever the cost? In short, do you agree that HS2 is a disaster?

Let us know

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