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CAG Chair Peter Delow reflects on a bad decision– February 2020

Lord, what fools these politicians be!
Apologies are due to Stratford’s favourite son for misquoting him and ruining the scan in the process, but anyone, like me, who has closely monitored the evolution of the HS2 project from an opposition standpoint will surely identify with the sentiment. Certainly, it is unfair and a gross generalisation to attribute poor judgement to all of those who, elected or not, chose to hold sway over us and spend our money, but over the years I have heard many in their ranks make some very foolish claims for HS2, so it is not entirely an unwarranted observation. Anyway, fair or not, it will serve me well as the text for this present sermon.

The captain of the ship of fools
I am penning this blog on the day after Boris Johnson had told Parliament that “the Cabinet has given high speed rail the green signal”. Well the Cabinet may have rubber-stamped the decision, but it is clear from the leaks and speculation of recent weeks that the judgement has been the Prime Minister’s alone: a decision that he, himself, characterised as “difficult and controversial” and “not made easier” by the “poor management to date” by HS2 Ltd. He expressed his dilemma more colourfully on Sky TV in a recent interview with a 10-year old, saying “in a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging”. This logic appears to be totally counter to the ‘First Law of Holes’ which has it that in such circumstances a wise man should stop digging; so, if that maxim is correct, the Prime Minister is surely being foolhardy and, perhaps, even foolish.
In truth, HS2 has been digging a hole for itself from the very day, ten years or so ago, when a select group within the newly-formed HS2 Ltd gathered to write its own technical requirements for the new railway and grossly over-specified. One consequence of letting the engineers – and I speak as a retired engineer – free to gold-plate is that we find ourselves in a situation where, as the Prime Minister admitted at the dispatch box, “the cost forecasts have exploded”.
I am frankly dismayed that Mr Johnson, together with a significant number of members of the crew of the parliamentary ship of fools, are apparently prepared to accept that the final cost of HS2 “will probably be north of £100bn”, to use the Prime Minister’s own turn of phrase, and to sign a blank cheque for whatever the bill turns out to be with little more than a vague undertaking that the Government will “restore discipline to the programme”. When the additions that were identified by the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission as necessary to “ensure the public gets the most out of HS2” are added to the bill, the cost is likely to be so far north of £100bn that it will have snow on it.

The falsehoods of the crew
As someone who has read page after page of the mountain of paperwork about HS2 that has been generated and painstaking analysed the claims, I despair at some of the glib statements about the benefits of HS2 that I have heard from politicians and representatives of vested-interest groups.
In the limited space available here, let me just mention three of these erroneous claims.
HS2 is touted as a solution to passenger overcrowding and capacity restrictions on the existing network. It is true that HS2 will provide a significant number of additional seats in and out of London (and other major cities), but the small number of HS2 stations means that this capacity is largely on offer where it is not actually of direct benefit. Stations where the overcrowding is worst, such as Milton Keynes, are not served directly by HS2 and will only gain limited relief by the extremely inefficient process of the substitution of services and shuffling of existing routes. This process will inevitably mean that some communities, such as Coventry, will lose out to enable others to benefit.
Contrary to the claim often heard, and repeated in the Oakervee Review report, that “HS2 could help deliver the government’s commitment to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050”, HS2 Ltd’s own figures, which take account of emission reductions due to freight and passenger modal shifts, show that the operation of the railway will be just about net carbon neutral, but that its construction will result in the emission of a staggering 1.45 million tonnes of CO2.
Some HS2 apologists also assert that, if HS2 is not built, it will result in the need to construct new motorways. Again HS2 Ltd’s own figures appear to debunk this claim; the Company’s estimate of the modal shift from car users to high-speed train users is a mere four per cent of total passengers using the railway. This is a trivial number compared with the traffic on our motorways and would surely have no impact on any decision whether to build a new motorway or not.

So what now?
As I understand it, there is still one hurdle that has to be cleared before the construction work can begin in earnest, which is the signing of a notice to proceed. This notice should only be issued when HS2 Ltd has demonstrated that it has adequate management capability, a robust business case and that the contracts will be affordable. Give that the National Audit Office has rated the HS2 project as currently “unachievable”, you might think that notice to proceed will prove to be an insurmountable stumbling block. Notwithstanding, I’m sure that we will see the faltering old white elephant somehow getting a shove over the hurdle and that notice to proceed will be somehow granted without any further delay.
So I think that all thoughts that HS2 can still be stopped must be put out of our minds.
However, I feel that the Cubbington Action Group against HS2 still has a role to play as the work of constructing HS2 proceeds, which is to hold HS2 Ltd’s feet to the fire to ensure that the disruption to Cubbington residents and the damage to our environment is kept to the absolute minimum.
And, you may ask, what about those heroic folk at the local protest sites? Well, I was in South Cubbington Wood just after the Prime Minister’s announcement and got the distinct impression that the folks there had no plans to give up their fight to protect the wood and other trees and hedgerows in our area.