There has been much talk in the past few days on two highly contentious issues that will have a profound impact on the country generally.
HS2 is once again in the spotlight and, as ever, not for good reasons; and prime minister Rishi Sunak has drawn a clear dividing line between his assessment of how to get to net zero and that of the Labour Party.
On HS2, two arguments rage. One is that it is simply a waste of money, that its budget has spiralled out of control and that taking it north of Birmingham is throwing good money after bad. The second is that it is a failure not to take the line into Euston station as was originally planned.
The line was the brainchild of now Lord Adonis, who was transport secretary under former PM Gordon Brown. He championed a network of high-speed rail inspired by HS1, the line through the Channel Tunnel to Paris, Brussels and beyond. He later confessed that stressing speed was a mistake.
The Liz line is Britain’s busiest railway and if you haven’t used it, you should
The issue with HS2 was always capacity. The existing West Coast line is overcrowded and previous efforts to upgrade it ended in failure when costs escalated to more than £10bn and delivery partner Bechtel was called in to cap it off. There’s no question that the landscape has now changed. Working from home is now a given almost everywhere. Employers are recognising that seeing staff in situ is more important than they might have thought, but the idea of at least one day a week of remote working is now endemic.
Given that 70% of rail journeys are commuting, the impact is considerable. Having been the first former transport minister to predict, and in these pages, that the Birmingham–Leeds spur would be cancelled, for good reasons, I predict the line will indeed continue north of Birmingham to Manchester. Whether the ultimate ambition to extend north to Glasgow will ever be a reality I very much doubt.
But I am also clear that HS2’s extension to Euston is a gross waste of money. When its route was planned, Crossrail (now the Elizabeth Line) was a gleam in a rail planner’s eye. Within a year of opening in May 2022, the Liz line is Britain’s busiest railway and if you haven’t used it, you should, if only to be proud of a magnificent extension of London’s underground network.
It meets HS2 at Old Oak Common, where a simple crossover would allow passengers from the north to switch. HS2 passengers for Heathrow would switch platforms and go west. If HS2 goes to Euston at a cost of untold billions, passengers face the option of the Northern or Victoria tube lines, both essentially north-south. But if they switch to the Liz line they can much more easily access the West End, the City and Docklands. It is a far superior solution and massively cheaper.
Dropping a ludicrous pledge
Meanwhile, Sunak’s decision to drop former PM Boris Johnson’s ludicrous pledge to mandate exiting internal combustion engines by 2030 (mainly to irritate the EU, which set the date at 2035) has divided the country.
It could be a huge issue in the general election, which is now a year away. Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens are already shouting foul. But I predict the rest of the country will recognise the common sense of not impoverishing the nation for the sake of a truly insignificant impact on climate change.
One or two of his own MPs need to recognise that on this he is very much the voice of the average voter. It is a timely and significant signal that he intends to meet the 2050 target to get to net zero that we all surely believe is vital, but at a price – and, as importantly, a pace – the country can afford.
Sunak’s announcement is not only right, it could yet determine the outcome of the next election.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates