The HS2 high speed rail line has long been the problem child of British infrastructure. Now, at a decade old and with a final decision on its future fast approaching, it is hurtling towards its difficult teenage years.
Yesterday, a leaked draft of the government-commissioned review into the project cast yet more doubt on how much it will actually contribute to the UK. HS2 was supposed to provide a cost benefit to the taxpayer of £2.30 for every £1, but that has now dropped as low as £1.30, according to review chairman Douglas Oakervee’s estimates.
For the City, it raises the question of what this means for Londoners.
HS2 was, quite rightly, intended to revitalise the north of England’s woeful rail infrastructure. There was never any doubt that its eye-watering £88bn price tag – more than the GDP of several European nations – would give more back to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
But if the value has plunged this far for the average taxpayer, Oakervee’s latest estimates bring it dangerously close to becoming a drag on those in the capital. Especially if the price rises further still, as predicted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this year, to “north of £100bn”.
No wonder the government tried to delay the review until after the General Election, as claimed by Lord Tony Berkeley, its deputy chair and longtime HS2 critic. Berkeley was installed on the panel for balance, but yesterday savaged the report as a “whitewash” and bemoaned his lack of involvement. So much for a neutral review.
Nevertheless, the floodgates are open, and the water is surging towards an already soggy campaign trail.
While visiting Nottingham in response to widespread flooding last week, Boris said: “I love infrastructure. The problem with HS2 is that it’s incredibly expensive.”
But his other problem is the opposition the scheme faces from several Tory MPs who are fighting for reelection in constituencies it could rip up. Business secretary Andrea Leadsom, MP for South Northamptonshire, last month called it “out of control” and “insensitive”.
Even Dominic Cummings, Downing Street’s top adviser who himself called HS2 a “disaster zone” earlier this year, will now surely struggle to stop it obscuring his core election messages of “get Brexit done”, and the so-called people’s priorities: police, hospitals and schools.
Now HS2 is a political football. With Oakervee’s review released out onto the pitch, Downing Street will need to decide what team it is on.