The entire HS2 proposal presents a huge dilemma. The crooked coalition government want it so it must, therefore, be a very bad idea. However, opposing HS2 means forming alliances with some very, very strange people.
It takes a lot to stop yourself laughing when the very well off and the privileged complain of unfairness. What could be causing such ire in the leafy shires? Beggars, foreigners, tradesmen, the price of foie gras? No, it`s vulgar public transport that is causing sabres to rattle. When HS2 Phase 1 was finally approved, the landed gentry got themselves into a bit of tizzy. Lord Astor, for example, secure in his stately pile in Buckinghamshire, doesn`t want wretched trains spoiling his view or impeding his pursuit of small red mammals answering to the name Reynard. The noble Lord blames “northern Labour MPs who relish the thought of the beauty of the Chilterns being destroyed, particularly in Conservative-held seats.” Old Etonian William Waldorf Astor, The fourth Viscount Astor is a former Social Security Minister in the John Major government and is the stepfather of the Prime Minister`s wife.
As inbred and influential as my Lord Astor is, even though his wealth is inherited from vulgar American, hotelier stock, he is not alone in his opposition to HS2. No less than four cabinet ministers and six junior ministers have constituencies that will be dug up to take 30 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham. Quaking Tories now feel the wrath of retired colonels and the genteel ladies of flower arranging clubs and so the high speed line was hastily redesigned to pass under outraged Tory voters in tunnels. The projected cost went from £28billion to £33billion. Tickets from London to Curzon Street in Birmingham are expected to cost about £200.
Lord Rothschild has also objected, fearing that passing trains might shake the dust from his chandeliers. David Allen, the owner of a large estate in Northamptonshire threatened to stop donating to the Tory party. The route near his fiefdom will now be in a tunnel. The second phase of HS2 connecting Manchester and Leeds to Birmingham takes a mysterious and illogical detour within the constituency of Tatton in Cheshire which, by complete coincidence, is the very posh seat of the very posh Chancellor of the Exchequer. The argument for the HS2 Phase 1 route was that it had to be straight to achieve 225 mph but, in Tatton, the super trains will be forced to slow down to negotiate a six mile dog leg that takes the line away from the affluent Tory strongholds of Wilmslow, Alderley Edge and Prestbury. With an estimated cost of £93million per mile, that equates to £500,000 to secure each individual vote in an Osborne majority of 1,000 in 2015. Lichfield`s very own Boris Johnston tribute act, the frankly bizarre Michael Fabricant, is screaming about property prices and compensation. Then there is the odious Tax Payers Alliance who are implacably opposed to anything other than tax avoidance by the obscenely wealthy. Given this unholy alliance of self interest, support for HS2 seems to be the only obvious option. However, as with anything touched by the liars and shysters in government, it is not that simple.
Any significant capital investment in infrastructure is long overdue and should be welcomed but £33billion and 20 years is a lot of money and a long time to wait for economic salvation. A tenth of that money could be spent tomorrow on building affordable housing that the UK actually needs which would reduce unemployment and increase tax revenue. It remains to be seen if overseas companies undercutting tender bids will be awarded the contracts to build HS2 and if construction companies will continue to be allowed to operate black lists of those interested in employment rights and health and safety legislation. If HS2 follows the current model of rail franchises, then it will be the logical zenith and culmination of venture entrepreneurial enterprise that has brought the world to the brink of financial ruin. The state will pay for the building of the thing and private companies will operate it for profit without the inconvenience of actual investment or irritating maintenance costs. A quick recollection of a transport policy train crash involving the West Coast Mainline shambles when every single transport minister was re-shuffled safely out of harm`s way when the scale of incompetence was about to be made public, HS2 comes with a pedigree of deniability. Like the banks, when the wheels come off, it will be bailed out and who could resist vast profit without risk by ripping off the people who have already paid for the “public service” you are providing. The money will whizz off to Geneva or the Cayman Islands at a velocity in considerable excess of 225mph.
Much has been made of the miraculous benefits of HS2, not least the reduction in journey times and the miracle cure for the North-South divide. Sadly in a relatively small country, the North-South divide is economic and not an issue of geography. Investment in the existing disaster might help and the extra half hour so vital to entrepreneurs desperate to arrive in London for meetings could be found by re-setting the alarm clock and catching an earlier bloody train. Much has been said about an increase in “capacity” but there has been little mention of the movement of freight on the new and incompatible system. Staying up all night and leaning on a window sill might give a clue as to the reasoning behind HS2 approval.
Attempting to buy a thrill, Cameron said that other countries had high speed rail links and so, therefore, the UK needed one as well. This testosterone fuelled logic is the same flawed madness that brings us a replacement for the Trident nuclear “deterrent” costing further billions even as food banks open and people with disabilities are being robbed by the state. The glacial timetable to stimulate economic growth through HS2 suggests a more short term agenda for a failing coalition government. Unwilling to grasp the nettle of inadequate runway capacity in the south east and terrified of alienating dwindling blue and white collar support in the Home Counties by expanding airports, the plan is to move the problem north where votes are less important. By renaming Birmingham International Airport as Heathrow Terminal Six and Manchester Airport as Terminal Seven, the real issue is on the back burner for at least 20 years. If the scheme ever actually happens or, indeed, if it ever actually works, it will take the same travel time from central London to Terminal Five as to Birmingham Airport. The returning trains to the big smoke will undoubtedly be packed with entrepreneurs braying into their mobile devices, now able to commute from the gated mansions of Tatton to the financial heart of tax avoidance.
On reflection, £33billion is a small price to pay to witness the bulging eyes, engorged neck veins and shrill outrage of the unpleasant alliance against HS2 even though most of them will have died at the top of hill by the time the fat controller waves the flag and blows the whistle in 20 years time. As a bonus, with a commute time of 68 minutes, millionaire Osborne will not be allowed to claim an allowance for a second home.
Don`t say I didn`t warn you when your train gets lost.