George Osborne, Patrick McLoughlin and Simon Burns have been flying the flag for the second phase of High Speed Rail 2 this morning. Politically, Osborne and Co see rewards in a project aimed at closing the North/South divide, rewards clearly so great that the Chancellor doesn’t mind the second half of the route zipping through his own constituency and irritating local councillors and campaigners. Osborne was careful to underline this when he appeared on breakfast television this morning, saying:
‘Our country has become so unbalanced and for the last 15 years as a country we gambled on the City of London and its prosperity and look where that got us. This new government is determined to change that and make sure the economic geography is changed and businesses are connected and able to benefit from that.’
Other MPs whose constituencies are also affected such as former cabinet minister Cheryl Gillan are not so impressed. But Gillan isn’t just annoyed about the route zipping through the beautiful Chiltern countryside of her Amersham constituency: she also has a very strong point to make about the timing of the HS2 announcements when the government has kicked its aviation strategy into the long grass. Writing for Coffee House in November, she argued that HS2 ‘lacks vital connectivity with other facets of our transport infrastructure, namely a proper link with a major UK airport or with HS1. It simply does not make sense to continue with a project of this size and expense when we do not yet know if it will complement the recommendations of the Davies Commission.’
The current plan is to consider extending HS2 to Heathrow directly later on, pending the recommendations of the Davies Commission. The phase two document, published this morning, says:
‘We have therefore taken the decision to pause work on the spur to Heathrow until after 2015 when we expect the Airports Commission to publish its final report… there would still be the opportunity to consult separately at a later point and include the Heathrow spur in legislation for Phase Two without any impact on the delivery time if that fits with the recommendations of the Commission.’
This assumes that Heathrow will continue to be the major airport serving the South East: what if Stansted (now Boris’ preferred option) gets the expansion green light instead? Either way, failing to coordinate plans for the two different transport modes, one bringing businesses and tourists into the country, and the other taking them northwards, isn’t the smoothest way of closing the North/South divide, especially if high speed rail and London’s biggest airport for the future don’t even join up.