If Boris Johnson is determined to deliver for the North he must pledge to complete HS2
Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron writes calling on the next PM to embrace the HS2 project not cancel it, following the remaining stages of the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill yesterday.
MPs yesterday debated the next phase of the game changing HS2 project. However, all too sadly it felt like it was nothing more than a sideshow to the Conservative leadership race that is now dragging on to its sixth gruelling week.
While MP after MP lined up to debate HS2, one absent figure was be Boris Johnson himself. The frontrunner for the Tory leadership, Boris has failed to commit to deliver HS2 while many of his supporters have been actively hostile. At the leadership debate last week, Mr Johnson pledged to “analyse” the project to see if the money could be better spent elsewhere.
HS2 is an easy target. It is seen by some as a white elephant, it is deeply unpopular in the Tory shires – the votes Mr Johnson needs – and many dismiss it as London’s answer to the North’s problems. You can just imagine Boris saying, in his characteristic bluster: ‘Only people in the South think the North needs quicker trains to London. What they really need are quicker connections across the North.’ This is a false choice. It must not be a choice between one or other, we need both.
The North has been underinvested for years. It is frankly astonishing that we are only just seeing the replacement of the temporary Pacer trains that blighted our rails for thirty years. We need HS2 and significant upgrades to existing lines if the Northern Powerhouse is to become a reality. Despite this, the Conservatives have delayed upgrading the trans-Pennine route for several years!
These projects are vital if we want to meaningfully tackle the climate emergency, reduce air pollution and congestion. It is too simplistic to say that all HS2 is for is to provide faster trains for passengers. By building a new major rail line the length of England, it will free up significant capacity on the old rail line HS2 will replace. This capacity can be put to good use – to move large amount of freight onto the railways, reducing the number of lorries on our roads, cutting air pollution and congestion.
Flights will be also be a major issue over the next 30 years, with the Committee on Climate Change having advised the Government that we need to keep the ever-increasing demand for air travel limited if we’re to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Given that Boris has pledged to tackle the climate emergency, cancelling HS2 would undermine that goal even more than the Tories have already.
Imagine what the point of a flight from London to the North would be if the train takes just over an hour? HS2 would cut nearly an hour off journeys from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh and that’s without future extension beyond Manchester and Leeds. It may also negate the need for further runway capacity at Heathrow, by placing Birmingham as far away as the airports at Stansted or Southend – although we would only know if this has succeeded when Birmingham Airport is renamed London Birmingham. But perhaps Boris wants a new airport named after himself instead!
But that’s not to say that the current plans are perfect. You only need to look at the spiralling costs of Crossrail to know that large infrastructure projects have their own problems. With all these projects we need far greater transparency and accountability, so the public know what’s happening with their money. HS2 trains are also not planned to stop at either of the Lake District’s mainline stations, failing to connect the UK’s major cities with one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations seems like a missed opportunity.
If Boris Johnson is determined as he says to deliver for the North – promising that he “will do for the North what I was able to do for in London” – then he must pledge to complete HS2. The benefits far outweigh the cost. It will benefit our economy, it will benefit our planet, it will benefit our roads. Mr Johnson please don’t betray the North by cancelling this project – embrace it.
Tim Farron is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Communities and Local Government & MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale