Richard Rosser on the government’s continuing inability to progress major transport projects
As many people are aware, the Coalition government, having announced it would be incapable of making a decision during the entirety of this parliament on airport capacity in the south-east, then showed itself incapable of running the rail franchise bidding programme. Now, another display of incompetence is occurring over the High Speed Rail link from London to the West Midlands and north of England.
A less than complimentary National Audit Office (NAO) report has highlighted financial and timetabling problems, as well as ministerial failure to articulate properly the powerful case for HS2. And a number of Tory MPs and Peers remain hostile to the project and another debate in the Lords today, instigated by Viscount Astor (the Prime Minister’s father-in-law), represents a further stage in their campaign.
The NAO has damningly said the Coalition’s strategic reasons for developing HS2 were not well presented in the business case. It also states that the timetable for introducing the hybrid bill for phase one has been overambitious. Witheringly for Transport ministers, the NAO also drew attention to their earlier report on the mistakes made leading up to the cancellation of the West Coast franchise procurement. (A fiasco that resulted in much of the rest of the programme being delayed or deferred, and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money wasted.)
Further issues of concern were an absence of a government mechanism to agree long term, in principle, funding for the life of the HS2 programme; and the DfT’s capacity to undertake a challenging timetable due to other commitments and the impact of internal organisational change.
Labour’s support for HS2, first proposed and embarked upon when in government, remains undiminished. It is needed to address serious and mounting capacity problems on our rail network, in particular the West Coast Main Line. As the NAO has said, “A new line (ie HS2) would release capacity for extra commuting services as most intercity services would transfer”.
We still have serious concerns about the adequacy of the link proposed in London between HS2 and the High Speed 1 route and services to Europe, the impact of the government’s plans on Camden and also recent proposals for a scaled back Euston Station. Nevertheless, we will provide cross-party support to secure parliamentary approval, whilst ensuring HS2 is fully integrated into the existing network, affordable to use, and not undertaken at the expense of rail investment elsewhere. But make no bones about it, the programme will not progress if Ministers fail to get their act together.
The Prime Minister has already lost control and influence over his backbenchers on Europe and equal marriage. If he is to avoid a hat-trick of internal rebellions, his Ministers must stop the dithering and delay, make the case for HS2 with more vigour and determination, and act now on the damning NAO report on their ineptitude to date.
Lord Richard Rosser is a member of Labour’s Transport team in the House of Lords
Published 21st May 2013