The news of HS2 first broke during the 2010 General Election campaign. At the time I was the Lib Dem parliamentary agent for the Kenilworth & Southam constituency. Given that the proposed route from London to Birmingham ran through the length of the constituency, it was vital that both my candidate and I came to grips rapidly with this major new issue. We didn’t rush to instant judgement, but within a week we were both certain that HS2 was a bad idea and that we should oppose it.
Now, nearly four years later, my opposition to HS2 remains absolute. The original business case has been shot down in flames many times, costs have escalated dramatically, and the rationale now seems to rest on an ill-defined healing of the north-south divide for which no credible evidence has been presented, and an argument for capacity which ignores many other perfectly feasible (and much cheaper) options.
I have never understood why the new Coalition Government, and the Liberal Democrats in particular, took over the HS2 project from Labour in 2010 with no critical assessment of the project’s rationale and viability. The Liberal Democrats have a reputation for evidence-based policy making, but there was little sign of this in terms of HS2. Yes, the party believes in High Speed Rail, and from this slipped too easily into the trap of believing that HS2 was the only game in town. Attempts by my local party and others to get HS2 debated at national conference failed, and apart from occasional flurries of dissent on Lib Dem Voice the Liberal Democrats have been the most silent of the three main parties on the issue. No Liberal Democrat MPs represent constituencies affected directly by the proposed HS2 route, and it is clear that until recently at least the issue has not been on their radar screens. The HS2 Paving Bill passed easily through Parliament last year, and the HS2 Phase 1 Hybrid Bill had its first reading just before Christmas.
And then came the flooding crisis of this winter, in the West of England in particular, and how the national debate about HS2 has changed! Liberal Democrat MPs representing constituencies in the South West are leading calls for some of the huge funds committed to HS2 to be spent on other major infrastructure priorities, in terms of flood protection schemes and upgrading the resilience of the rest of the national transport infrastructure. The Liberal Democrat minister responsible for flooding has highlighted the lack of adequate consideration of the issue in the four years of HS2 planning to date.
Does anyone seriously believe any more that the country can afford to spend £50+ billion on HS2 and fund the levels of investment on climate change mitigation that will be necessary to make the whole of the national transport infrastructure resilient enough to withstand whatever the elements may throw at us in the future? Hard choices have to be made.
The HS2 Hybrid Bill will come back to the House of Commons for its Second Reading during the Spring, most probably about the end of April I believe. Before then, I hope that all Liberal Democrat MPs will have taken the time to understand fully what HS2 will and will not achieve for the country, and in particular to read the many devastating critiques of the project that the Government has so far been prepared to brush aside. The best single source for this is the web site of the HS2 Action Alliance at http://www.hs2actionalliance.org/
If the Hybrid Bill passes its Second Reading, it will then go into Select Committee, which on the evidence of the Crossrail and HS1 experience will extend beyond the date of the next General Election. HS2 is likely to become a major election issue, certainly in this part of the world, with currently only UKIP and the Greens having a clear national stance of opposition.
I urge you to vote against HS2 at the Second Reading of the Hybrid Bill. Consign it to the history books, and let’s get back to a proper rational debate about the long-term strategic infrastructure needs of the country as a whole.