THINK of your favourite decadent pudding. Then get rid of all the best bits and just keep the base element. This is akin to what the Tories are doing by getting rid of the only bit of HS2 that ever made any sense, from Birmingham to Leeds. Compound it by scrapping all the most delicious trimmings in the North. The planned Northern Powerhouse Rail link from Liverpool to Hull is being downgraded in the critical middle section from Manchester to Leeds, with Bradford being abandoned yet again. Quite an achievement, but to be expected from this Government. They are not levelling up but levelling down while sneering at the North.
London and the Home Counties is the richest part of the UK and one of the wealthiest areas not just in Europe, but in the world. Birmingham and its affluent hinterland is likewise one of the richer parts of the UK. The Conservatives’ astronomically expensive new railway line – ‘HS2’ – will connect one rich part of the UK to another. The existing railways in the UK are, in terms of passenger numbers, mostly used by those on high incomes. Most railway journeys happen in London and the South-East and are undertaken by salaried commuters for the most part on high (or indeed very high) incomes. Rail subsidies, running at around £15billion a year, are a transfer from the general (average income) taxpayers to rail users in the south of England (on high incomes).
Railway services in most of the other regions of England and in Wales (where they are devolved) are woefully slow, just appalling. Until the recent completion of the electrified line to Cardiff, Wales was the only country in Europe other than Albania not have a single mile of electrified railway. Plans to extend the electrification to Swansea have, like so many major rail investment schemes in the regions, been shelved.
Since the 1990s the lines in the richer parts of the UK have been improved, and those in the poorest largely left alone. Rail users in the North and South West know all about the horrors of the infamous ‘Pacer Trains’, a stop-gap solution in the 1980s pending electrification, where British Leyland coach chassis were drilled on to the top of old freight wagons. The trains bounced along the tracks and were always breaking down. Millions of people in the regions of England have spent decades using substandard rail services, when equivalent railway lines in France or Germany have affordable fares, are electrified, fast and usually on time.
In truth what is happening is that the HS2 budget is soaring totally out of control. Farming friends along the construction route tell me of dozens of new diggers sitting untouched for months on end, with hundreds of workers hanging around doing very little. Abandoning the HS2 eastern link is intended to save money to cover up this massive overall cost overrun. Ministers and civil servants hope we will not notice. They never really talked about the forecast cost of this Eastern link, or the amount from Birmingham to Manchester. The final cost of the reduced London to Manchester plan will still, according to my sources, end up nearer £200billion than the current budget of £106billion. I expect that in a couple of years the Birmingham to Manchester element will be reduced in scale and speed. Again they will dress this up in suitable spin to hide the awful truth.
The solution is the reverse of the Government’s plans. Keep the Birmingham to Leeds element of HS2 and scrap the rest of it. In business we say the first loss is the best loss. I estimate the saving could be some £100billion on the final cost.
Voters in the north of England in scores of the ‘Red Wall’ seats voted for a total rethink of the economy, for investment in the regions to bring their standard of living and infrastructure more into line with the rich south.
Cancelling and scrapping the most delicious trimmings of levelling up in the North from the West coast to the East coast will appal those voters and their newly elected Tory MPs. Many of those will be made redundant at the next election, due to the actions of rich Southern ministers and civil servants.