Let’s begin at what would have been the end of the line. The government’s axing of the High Speed 2 rail link between Birmingham and Manchester, finally announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, is an absolutely classic case of Britain being absolutely useless at making a decent job of major infrastructure projects. The one shining exception has been the completion of the Olympic Park for London 2012, on time and within budget. That triumph confounded our international reputation for making a mess of building anything big. The farce of HS2 has fully restored it.
For London, there was some sort consolation in the latest promise to finish the job of bringing the line the full distance from Birmingham so that it terminates at Euston. But what does that promise amount to? What is it worth? The revised plan is for a much smaller station and its site to be redesignated as the Euston Development Zone. How much London government involvement, at either borough or City Hall level, this will allow remains to be seen.
This seemingly top-down shrinkage ploy, if actually put into effect, would ensure that the northern section of HS2 could never be built in future, because Euston wouldn’t have enough platforms for passengers wanting to go north of Birmingham. It could also mean that the housing Sunak said he wants built on part of the Euston site will be as expensive as possible to maximise the subsidy of the station.
Sunak claims reducing Euston will save £6.5 billion “to be given to the rest of the country”. This money, the government says, will go towards, among other things, “ensuring the delivery of road schemes” and “fixing potholes on the country’s roads” – a backfilling operation to make up for the costs of austerity presented as a splendid new idea, and all the better for being at London’s expense.
The total damage done to HS2 will, the government contends, release a total of £36 billion for alternative transport improvements in what it calls a “fundamental shift to how government invests in transport infrastructure – unlocking potential faster in our towns, cities and rural areas”. But some of it is old news: Sunak’s theoretical upgrade of the A1 was a David Cameron policy and the new railway station he says Bradford will be given is the same gift withheld from that city in 2021.
Someone has confected a thing called Network North – which stretches all the way to Plymouth, according to the map they’ve cobbled together – “benefitting more people in more places, more quickly”. This too is doubtful. New transport schemes of any scale take years to put together, cost and construct. Not even tentative completion dates were mentioned for the promised Leeds tram service, improvements to rail services in North Wales or the West Midlands or the Manchester to Liverpool line, to which an additional £12 billion was pledged.
A truly devolutionist approach to capping the cost of HS2 might have been acceptable, as Alexander Jan has shown. The Sunak solution, though, has different priorities. It is primarily an elaborate, oddball-influenced electoral gambit, the outcome of a desperate desire to breath hot air into the burst ballon of levelling up and to, as usual, set a trap for Labour – do you dare say you won’t do the things we say we’re going to do (but probably won’t do, not least because we probably won’t win the general election anyway)?
HS2 has long been been a troubled project, but bailing out of it in this way and at this point creates the fresh peril of false economies and yet more broken pledges to many parts of the country that deserve better. And the treatment of London Euston has been a terminal fiasco.