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Coffee House

HS2: No blank cheque or empty threats?

17 March 2014

8:56 AM

17 March 2014

8:56 AM

Sir David Higgins wants the northern end of HS2 built quicker, as a means of selling the benefits of the ‘north-south’ line to those who remain sceptical about the new line. You can read his full report on High Speed 2 here, but it’s worth considering the position of one of the biggest groups of sceptics too. Labour has repeatedly said that there is no blank cheque for HS2, and Ed Balls frequently deploys the line as a way of showing that he really is very fiscally responsible these days.

Balls said yesterday on Marr that Labour would support the high speed rail bill at second reading but that if the costs rose above £50 billion, then he would have to think again. He said:

‘But at every stage in this project for the next few years – because it’s going to go into the next Parliament when the final decision is taken – I’m going to say there’s no blank cheque. The costs have got to come down, the assumptions have got to be robust.’

This is all very well and good, but it would be a bold Labour shadow chancellor – or indeed chancellor – who really pulled out of the HS2 project when Birmingham Council has put quite as much effort and planning as it has into a 25-year masterplan based on HS2 going ahead. Pulling support from the project would be to shaft Labour-run Birmingham, to put it mildly. Would Labour really do that? The question of whether Balls’ threat is credible is the same, in effect, as whether David Cameron is really scaring European leaders sufficiently when he says that support for the EU in Britain is ‘wafer-thin’, yet makes it clear he’d like to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union.

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