Blow to high speed rail consensus
The news this morning that the Conservatives have rejected Lord Adonis’ offer of an early look at the High Speed Rail White Paper should worry supporters of high speed rail.
Lord Adonis and Department for Transport civil servants are currently digesting the contents of the report they received from High Speed 2 at the turn of the year. HS2 was set up to produce a detailed report to government on the options for a new high speed rail route in the UK (High Speed 1, of course, is the 68 miles between London and the Channel Tunnel). Rumoured to be over 1,000 pages long and setting out a proposed route from London to Birmingham to within five metres in urban areas and 25m in the countryside, it is understandable that Lord Adonis is keeping the report’s contents close to his chest for now to avoid planning blight. But detailed proposals are expected towards the end of March in the form of a White Paper, which would then be subject to wide-ranging consultation.
It emerged today that the Conservatives have declined to see the draft white paper, saying that they don’t want to do a deal on high speed rail ‘behind closed doors’. But this seems to be based on either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of the situation. HS2 was set up by the Labour Government but is a specialist advisory company and a year’s detailed work by experts has gone into the report, so it is difficult to dismiss its proposals as “Labour’s route”. The scale of the project means that years of detail consultation and planning will be needed. Seeing the White Paper shouldn’t commit the Tories to supporting one route, but it would tie them in to the difficult process of building a long term political consensus about high speed rail. This, above all, is critical to the success of a project of this size and national importance.
HS1 came about through an unlikely alliance between John Prescott and Michael Hestletine, characterised as the “dynamic duo” by Lord Adonis in an affectionate Newsnight report this week. It was telling that Lord Hestletine recognised the difficulties of the planning stage but called this “short term politics” as opposed to the long term benefits of high speed. The Guardian quotes a Conservative Party source as saying “we don’t want to lose 10 seats backing a route blindly”. But whichever party is in government after the election will need to take these difficult decisions and will need to go through the painful process of consultation and negotiation with communities along the route about the specifics.
If a reminder is needed about those benefits, a look at some of the impressive work from Greengauge 21 should help – their vision for a UK-wide high speed network predicts economic benefits worth £125 billion, which would outstrip costs by a ratio of 3:1. Even Network Rail’s more limited and cautious proposals forecast over £30 billion of net benefits. The benefits for regions hard hit by the recession would also be particularly important, with the Association of North East Councils (pdf), for instance, predicting a £3.1bn productivity boost for the region from a high speed link.
The fact that all three major parties are committed to high speed rail could bring a huge boost to the UK economy and environment. Let’s hope today’s falling out is a temporary blip thanks to the proximity of the election, and not a shattering of the consensus.