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Don’t pull heartstrings on HS2, rely on the facts

Until recently, High Speed 2 looked like a done deal. Yes, there were dissenters; yes, the hybrid bill still had to go through Parliament; but in general the nation seemed to have accepted its inevitability.

Over the last couple of months, however, HS2 has rarely been out of the news, with high-profile politicians from Boris Johnson to Alistair Darling very publicly raising doubts about whether the project is the best way either to spend the nation’s money or to upgrade its infrastructure.

In response, ministers and other champions of the scheme have mobilised to remind us of the benefits. This week it is the turn of KPMG, which, in a piece of research commissioned by HS2 itself, says the project will add £15bn onto the economy - and £5bn to the Exchequer - each year once it’s up and running.

“Those in favour of HS2 will take the £15bn figure, those against will emphasise the list of topics in need of further research”

But in the appendix at the back of the report, there is - quite rightly - a list of all the factors that the report has not been able to take into account, or which need further research.

The problem is that in ‘real life’ these points are unlikely to be presented side by side. Those in favour of HS2 will take the £15bn figure, those against will emphasise the list of topics in need of further research.

This kind of black or white argument - and the uncertainty it creates - lends weight to Sir John’s call to achieve cross-party consensus on long-term infrastructure planning and, put simply, combine more decisive action in the short term with a longer-term approach to the pipeline.

It is not just the noisy debate over HS2 which illustrates his point; it is equally relevant in cases where projects have gone quiet - new nuclear, for example.

“As the chair of the ODA, which delivered the Olympics so successfully, Sir John is well-placed to argue for nuclear’s equivalent”

As Construction News revealed online last week, Sir John would like to see the equivalent of the Olympics Delivery Authority for new nuclear power stations. While there continues to be no agreement over the strike price, nothing is being built.

As the chair of the ODA, which delivered the Olympics so successfully, Sir John is well-placed to argue for nuclear’s equivalent.

The Department for Transport speechwriters have been pulling out all the stops to convince people of HS2’s benefits.

We should see it as “a heart bypass for the clogged arteries of our transport system”, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin was to say this week, warning that we “can’t count the cost of a lost future”.

I’m not sure about the arteries analogy - or the emotive language - but he’s right that decisions taken now will have an effect for generations to come. Let’s discuss the pros, the cons and the alternatives, reach a conclusion and take action.

Debate HS2 at the Construction News Summit

To debate the benefits of HS2 with former chancellor Alistair Darling and HS2 chairman Doug Oakervee, book your place today at the Construction News Summit.

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