It’s time to scrap HS2



With disturbing rumours of tax increases in the air, I recently wrote a piece for this site outlining the economic approach I would like to see in the wake of the Coronacrisis. One of the policies I suggested was scrapping HS2 – something which I’m sure plenty of Conservatives, and even non-Conservatives, feel strongly about. 

There hasn’t been a bigger white elephant in living memory than this over-budget, inefficient and downright pointless vanity project, dreamt up by Gordon Brown’s government in response to the Financial Crash – and then championed by George Osborne in the early years of the coalition. It has, for obvious reasons, never enjoyed widespread support outside of the M25 bubble. 

As a result of COVID-19, the government will be left with a hundreds of billions pounds black hole, meaning cuts in some areas may be needed – and what better thing to cut than a project with virtually no support? Having originally been costed at around £32 billion, HS2 has now spiralled dangerously out of control, with the projected bill rising to the wrong side of £110 billion, nearly double the outlay of similar projects around the globe. 

Rather than throw money down the drain on this unnecessary self-aggrandisement, why not take a more targeted, local approach? For example, we could invest in the regions, in the branch lines cut by Richard Beeching in the 1960s – a plan that would increase the mobility of labour and attract investment and business to areas in need. 

Of course there is the issue of sunk costs; are we too far in to pull the plug on this taxpayer-draining monolith? The simple answer is no – it’s never too late. As Lord Berkeley, the rail executive, said, HS2 is “terrible value for money”, and Conservative MP after Conservative MP has a list as long as your arm detailing problems with the project. 

In a time when many firms, of all sizes, are trying to find their way through a period of significant post-COVID uncertainty, it seems remarkable that the government will proceed with this huge burden, especially with the national debt skyrocketing as a (necessary) result of the furlough programme and other business support packages. Think of it like this: even if the COVID debt is paid for over the course of half a century (like our Second World War debt), how many workers’ furloughs can be paid for by the cancellation – or, at least, suspension at Birmingham – of HS2? 

As the Prime Minister confirmed only yesterday, we will not be proceeding with another programme of austerity. But the COVID debt will need massaging, and what better way to start repaying it than by scrapping this modern day Great Train Robbery? Let’s free up that public money, and get the economy moving again.

Ethan Thoburn is Deputy Chairman of South Tyneside Conservatives and an Area Officer in the North East of England. He is a regular writer for The Bruges Group. Follow him on twitter: @ethan_thoburn