HS2 was given an emphatic vote of no confidence at The Specator’s debate last night, where Matthew Parris and Nigel Farage led their respective teams into battle. This was the debate that Westminster will not have (all parties are officially agreed on the project) which is all the better for us.
Farage claimed he loves infrastructure projects in general but hates HS2 as it’s a Westminster vanity project. Farage attempted to marry Ukip’s (inconsistent) support for high speed rail with his ardent opposition to HS2:
‘There are so many things we could do. And yes, let’s look at the Great Central railway project…we are not luddites, we are not backwards. I want Crossrail, I want to build some new motorways. We have to accept that some ugly things will have to be built in the name of progress. Even if you can convince me there is a capacity argument, the [HS2] route is wrong.’
Spectator columnist Rory Sutherland argued it will be rendered redundant by new technology — his proposal of a £30,000 smartphone app to allows passengers to board any train for a £5 fee would go a long way to solve the problem of underused trains. Cheryl Gillan, a former member of David Cameron’s cabinet, outlined why the figures simply do not add up, and suggested any benefits won’t outweigh the disruption.
Matthew Parris claimed that Farage is living in a fantasy world: the Ukip manifesto proposed five or six high-speed lines, he said (and produced a poster of the UK with sprawling rail lines everywhere, to illustrate his point). To Exeter. Birmingham. The new London airport off an island somewhere. It’s no surprise that the Spectator is against HS2, Parris said – the magazine has “been as steady as a rock” having opposed major transport infrastructure since its inception in 1828 – from Stephenson’s Rocket to “motorway madness” to the “madcap” Channel Tunnel. There are only “stupid” reasons for opposing HS2: He listed some including John Redwood moaning about empty seats on trains. Cancel this “great, brave, necessary” proposal and the cash will “leak away with nothing to show for it.”
Backing Parris was the leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese. The self-proclaimed ‘missionary from the North and the Labour party’ explained why the UK’s population growth could threaten the green belt around London:
‘There’s a rather greater risk to prime agricultural land by not building High Speed 2, because it has been made quite clear that the population demands around London and the South East will be eating into the green belt very rapidly over a large number of years.’
It’s not just house building that may taint some of our green and pleasant land. If HS2 isn’t built, Leese argued the other forms of infrastructure work will eat into the shires:
‘We could look at the capacity needs, at least in between cities, with an improved road network. It would take two six lanes motorways. If people in the Chilterns think they have a problem with one railway, how would they like two six lane motorways going through the middle of the Chilterns?’
One of the frequent arguments from HS2 naysayers is to suggest that the existing lines should be further upgraded. Leese made the case of why this is not an effective alternative — a stronger argument than anyone else in his party has made over the last week:
‘Improving the existing network to get something like a quarter of the capacity of high speed rail, would cost £20 billion and would see 14 years of disruption. For those of who’ve had a decade of disruption with the last upgrade of the West Coast main line, that is unacceptable.’
And does Nigel Farage have an alternative to HS2? Build a new line, somewhere else but not through the Chilterns —aka Ukip’s heartland:
‘If we have to build HS2, which I don’t believe we do, then we don’t drive it through Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Staffordshire. We build it parallel to the M1 motorway and the existing railway line.’
Handily, this is another uncosted, unfunded and unworkable proposal from Ukip. So why did they win? I suspect that a major factor was that the audience gathered primarily to see Farage, who attracted a bigger crowd than any of the other speakers. We HS2 fans like to think the battle is not entirely over yet — even if we lost last night’s debate.
Listen to the full debate:
The Spectator’s next debate is Addiction is not a disease with Trinny Woodall vs Damian Thompson. Hear Damian’s take on addiction in his bust-up with Peter Hitchens here, and book tickets for the 21 November debate here.