HS2 and the trade unions: An open letter to Frances O’Grady

Dear Frances O’Grady

In the Guardian (Letters, Saturday 21 September) you joined with the rail trade unions in supporting HS2, asking for the project to be handed over to Network Rail, and calling for a national transport strategy.

I can understand why the TUC might want to support member trade unions. I also share your concerns about the incompetence of HS2 Ltd. But the interests of the TUC and the rail unions are not the same. HS2 has big implications for public spending and thus for other unions. The rail unions support HS2 because they think that if it is cancelled it will not be replaced by other rail investment. However this position is not compatible with calls for a national transport strategy. HS2 is a stand-alone project, poorly connected to the rest of the rail network. It does not address the most serious problems of capacity and congestion on the network, which lie elsewhere, on commuter lines for example. It was initiated by Lord Adonis, an unelected technocrat, and is failing to stand up to the scrutiny of elected politicians on the Public Accounts Committee and of democratically accountable institutions such as the National Audit Office. Thus if you support a national transport strategy then HS2 should, at least, be sidelined until we have one.

Why else might the TUC support HS2? Surely you do not believe the government’s claim that it will be an ‘engine for growth’? The KPMG report which attempts to substantiate this claim has been comprehensively trashed by experts – see http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/36335 for example. The government itself claims that it will create 100,000 jobs. Even leaving aside inconvenient facts such as that many of these are likely to be not new jobs but relocated from elsewhere, if HS2 costs £43bn, each of these jobs will cost £430,000 of public money. This is absurd – jobs created through regeneration projects probably cost on average about £33,000 each.

And of course, there would be far better ways of spending the £43bn. The New Economics Foundation has undertaken detailed analysis which documents how the money could be used to upgrade the existing inter-city network, overhaul regional rail, improve walking and biking infrastructure at the same time as upgrading the national broadband network – http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/high-speed-2-the-best-we-can-do. This approach would support jobs and skills in the rail industry more widely across the country, thus meeting the TUC’s ‘five tests’ – http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2010/03/five-tests-for-high-speed-rail – much better than HS2 does. Labour’s Commission on Sustainable Transport (abolished by the government) demonstrated clearly how this kind of package would be much more effective in promoting local and regional growth than one stand-alone megaproject. Surely this is what the TUC should be backing, not HS2?

Mike Geddes

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About Mike Geddes

Professor Mike Geddes has research interests in public policy and management, including local democracy, local economic development and public services. He has undertaken research for the EU, the UK government and many local authorities, and has led and participated in several large scale policy evaluations for government. He has contributed regularly to the OECD LEED programme on local governance and the work of the OECD Trento Centre, and is a member of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum Research Advisory Group.
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