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Ed Balls must be honest with Birmingham and stop his damaging political posturing over HS2

Ed Balls must be honest with Birmingham and stop his damaging political posturing over HS2

🕔28.Oct 2013

Just over a month has passed since Ed Balls told Chamberlain Files that a Labour government would not write a blank cheque for HS2.

The shadow chancellor’s quote has been repeated many times by colleagues, and indeed by party leader Ed Miliband, and it is apparent that the Labour’s position on high speed rail has shifted and continues to move almost on a day to day basis.

The latest cost-benefit analysis on HS2, to be presented by the Department for Transport tomorrow, will be a pivotal moment for the planned route between London, Birmingham and the north of England, which is estimated to cost £42.6 billion.

To say that the situation is fluid and likely to change is to state the obvious.

Labour seems to be performing an extraordinary trick of accepting the case for high speed rail, yet appears unable or unwilling to continue with the cross-party consensus that has until now made it certain that the project will go ahead whoever wins the next General Election.

On the one hand Mr Balls talks of the need to take party politics out of decisions about infrastructure projects and is promising a standing commission to draw up spending priorities should he become Chancellor. No one could sensibly argue against that.

Yet at the same time Mr Balls seeks to make political capital out of the rising cost of HS2, neatly ignoring the certainty that Government transportation schemes routinely end up costing more than was first claimed. The trick is to bear down on costs and secure the most efficient use of public money, assuming of course that you accept the principle that HS2 is a ‘good thing’ for all sorts of reasons.

To muddy the waters even further, Mr Balls talks endlessly of his support for a north-south route. Note here a refusal to use the dread words HS2.

The clear implication is that Labour may withdraw its backing for HS2 early next year, in time for the run-up to the 2015 General Election. This would almost certainly be done on cost-benefit grounds.

Recent events persuaded David Cameron to up the ante even further by declaring that a withdrawal of support from Labour would be tantamount to axing HS2 since the private sector would not be prepared to invest in such a long term project without the backing of all the main political parties.

Labour would be “letting down the north” if it were to “run away” from HS2, the prime minister claimed.

So there we have it. The next election may be fought partly on the battleground of mud-slinging over who is to blame for shunting high speed rail into the sidings.

It’s a classic case of the old British disease – short-termism, or political expediency if you like. It suits politicians chasing support to frighten voters by laying into hugely expensive transportation projects, even if these schemes are vital tools in boosting regeneration, creating jobs and improving connectivity.

Let’s recall what Ed Balls had to say to Chamberlain Files on the subject of HS2, having of course already firmly posted his ‘third Heathrow runway’ colours to the mast:

“We have supported north-south investment for years, but there has to be value for money, control of the costs and being clear that the benefits are there and that they are real.

“I am for HS2 so long as we can see the value for money case and see that the case has been made properly. It’s the government’s responsibility to lead.

“George Osborne gives the impression that he is so committed that whatever happens to the cost he is going to do it. That’s no way to run the Treasury and I am not going to write a blank cheque.

“I want to know there is a solid case on the journey times, the capacity and the economic improvements.

“Would the existence of HS2 boost the economies north and south? The answer is yes, but is it a big enough boost to justify the expense?”

It was hardly a ringing endorsement of HS2, and since he issued those remarks Mr Balls’s attitude over high speed rail seems to have hardened.

In one of his latest media interviews the shadow chancellor appeared to compare HS2 with the Millennium Dome and declared: “I think you should learn from your mistakes”.

A question arises immediately: with what, if anything, would Labour replace HS2, since Mr Balls is on record as stating that there are many better ways to invest almost £50 billion in transport.

One Sunday newspaper reported ‘authoritatively’ that Mr Balls was considering dusting off a decades-old plan to re-open the Great Central Railway which once ran from London to the north through the heart of the Midlands.

In other words, Labour would have a high speed railway, but not HS2. Goodness only knows what the cost of Grand Central would be. Even the cost of properly investigating the feasibility of Grand Central would run into hundreds of millions of pounds, on top of the £1 billion already spent on putting together the case for HS2.

The trading of blows between Labour and the coalition government prompted an unlikely intervention from Bob Crow, the general secretary of transport union RMT, who described recent events as “political posturing  designed as a smokescreen to delay investment in Britain’s existing railways”.

Mr Crow said: “Britain’s rail system has been dumped in the slow lane for two decades under both of the main parties through the twin evils of private profiteering and political inertia on key investments like high speed rail.

“Today we see that they are back at it again and while the political class carry on showboating we slide further behind the rest of Europe on rail modernisation.”

An increasingly nervous government is beginning to make clear the implications of scrapping HS2. Existing rail lines would have to be improved since the West Coast Main Line and the East Coast line are already running virtually at capacity. One of the key benefits of HS2 is to increase capacity on existing lines, so without HS2 a huge problem exists if the growing demand for rail travel is to be met.

Network Rail has said that the work needed to increase capacity on these lines would involve weekend rail closures for 14 years, doubling journey times in many instances.

This, along with Mr Balls’s combative remarks, resulted in deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman attempt to clarify matters by appearing on The Andrew Marr Show to insist that the party “absolutely support better north-south lines”……but not at any cost.

What Labour must do, surely, is to be clear about how it can provide the jobs and improved connectivity between south and north that HS2 will deliver if the project is to be scrapped because it is ‘unaffordable’.

This is important for Birmingham, not just because of the construction jobs that will be created but also because of the large-scale inward investment and wealth certain to be attracted to the area adjacent to the HS2 terminus at Digbeth. The positive impact that HS2 will have on Birmingham Airport, sharply reducing journey times to Heathrow, must not be underestimated, either.

Failure to explain himslef will leave Mr Balls wide open to the claim that he is playing politics with the best chance for decades of closing the north-south divide, not to mention solving the capacity issue on existing rail lines.

Here in Birmingham, a Labour controlled city with mostly Labour MPs, the message must get home to Mr Balls: stop your HS2 political posturing and be honest about your true intentions.



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