Is HS2 a defining issue for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign?

Much of the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has been down to the perception that he speaks the truth as he sees it – he says what he believes, without fear or favour, and this sets him apart from the other candidates.
But is this true in respect of HS2? A week or two ago, newspapers reported that Corbyn was about to state his opposition to HS2, saying that it was a project to turn regional cities into dormitories for London businesses. But then, in the event, he did not, and his Northern Future policy paper made no reference to HS2 when discussing transport. The word was that Corbyn had been ‘got at’ by trade union interests who support HS2 (1). Then, a couple of days ago, a statement from Corbyn’s camp made a positive reference to high speed rail (though not to HS2 specifically).
We cannot know what has actually been going on, unless Corbyn issues a precise and clarifying statement. Does he support HS2, and if so why?
If he does, he will be joining those, from Lord Adonis and the Prime Minister, for whom HS2 has become a prestige, legacy project, not the white elephant it actually is; those representing interests which would directly gain from HS2, such as the leaders of some northern and midland cities which would have an HS2 station; and those in the rail industry for whom any train is a good train.
But he will be setting himself against the great bulk of the evidence, which shows that HS2 is very bad value for money(2); that it will do little or nothing to bridge the north-south divide(3); that there are many other parts of the rail network which are more congested and have more need of investment; and that nearly all other forms of transport investment are more effective in creating jobs and supporting local communities than high speed rail (4). These views are those of academia (5), of commentators from the left (eg the New Economics Foundation (6)) and the right (eg Simon Jenkins (7); even of the House of Lords recent committee of inquiry into the economics of HS2 (8).
There would be far better ways of spending the £50bn or more which HS2 would cost. 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 (9) This approach would support jobs and skills in the rail industry more widely across the country, thus meeting the TUC’s ‘five tests’ for high speed rail (10)much better than HS2 does.
Of course, there are some supporters of HS2 who argue that it is not a case of having either HS2 or other transport investments – we can have both. The problem with this is twofold. First, it is not the case that HS2 and other transport projects are both good investments. HS2 is a bad investment in any terms. To give just two examples: HS2 would mean a decline in classic rail intercity services in places like Coventry which it bypasses; and the cost of each job created by HS2 (even accepting the government’s inflated figures) would be about £350-£400,000, compared to about a tenth of that for jobs created by local regeneration projects(11). Secondly, we are now beginning to see, as regional lobby groups begin to generate programmes for secondary packages of transport investment to support HS2, that whole regional transport budgets will be skewed towards HS2, to the inevitable detriment of competing projects. At the same time, the financial demands of these programmes shows that the true cost of HS2 will be much more than that of the line itself (12).
So where does Jeremy Corbyn stand on HS2? Is he with the vested interests or with the evidence?
Notes
1. See for example Manuel Cortes, TSSA General Secretary: http://labourlist.org/2015/08/jeremy-corbyn-is-right-we-need-a-peoples-railway/
2. Paul Salvesen, author of Railpolitik and Colne Vallet CLP
3. Professor John Tomaney, Evidence to Transport Select Committee
4. This was the conclusion of Labour’s Commission on Sustainable Transport.
5. Such as LSE Professor Henry Overman ; http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cp361.pdf
6. David Theiss, High Speed 2: One track mind? Considering the alternatives to HS2
New Economics Foundation 2013
7. See http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/26/hs2-vanity-project-network-rail and http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/02/hs2-not-useless-railway-stupidest-cameron-tories-mistake
8. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldselect/ldeconaf/134/134.pdf
9. http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/high-speed-2-the-best-we-can-do.
10. http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2010/03/five-tests-for-high-speed-rail
11. https://hs2theregionalimpact.wordpress.com/2014/09/24/hs2-and-the-north-south-divide-the-mirage-of-jobs-and-growth/
12. For example the Midlands Growth Strategy requires £3.3bn. http://centreofenterprise.com/hs2-growth-strategy/

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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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