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Cutting HS2 is a decade too late

Rishi Sunak has more white elephants in his sights. Credit: Getty

September 25, 2023 - 10:00am

The Government has yet to decide on the future of HS2, but it’s not looking good for the northern leg to Manchester. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said that the costs are “totally out of control”. It would be “crazy” not to review the situation, added Defence Secretary Grant Shapps.

The link to Leeds has already been cancelled, so if Manchester is also cut loose then HS2 will become the Birmingham Express. National humiliation beckons, not to mention the final collapse of the levelling-up agenda. However, there is one political upside for Rishi Sunak: another chance to portray himself as a taker of tough decisions. Fraser Nelson, one of the more Sunak-friendly commentators, puts it thus:

All this cuts to the core of who Sunak is as a person and a politician. If he has an -ism, it’s tradeoff-ism: a belief in being frank about the costs and benefits of policies, of being honest about the price that will be paid and sacrifices made.
- Fraser Nelson, Telegraph

But if the PM really is our cost-cutting hero, then as far as HS2 goes he’s late to the scene. Almost a decade ago there were Conservatives calling for the scrapping of the entire project. If they’d been listened to, then years of political effort and billions of pounds could have been saved. £2.3 billion has already been spent on preparatory work for HS2 beyond Birmingham.

Spotting a white elephant while it’s trampling through the public finances isn’t difficult. The real test is stopping a misconceived mega-project before it wastes our time and money.

For instance, if Sunak is as hard-nosed as he’s cracked up to be, he should take another look at Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk. As a mega-project, it’s very similar to Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Still in construction, Hinkley has been plagued by cost overruns and repeated delays. 

Unbelievably, the Government’s response to this fiasco is to take a direct 50% stake in the Suffolk plant, which means betting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a technology notorious for its construction risks. 

Remember that only last week Sunak decided to delay the national rollout of heat pumps — a simple piece of kit that’s basically a reverse fridge. So is he going to apply his supposed rigour to the daunting complexity of nuclear fission? The cynical answer is: of course he won’t. Sizewell C is still at the planning stage, not the burning money stage. The Prime Minister can bask in the grandeur of his nuclear vision — and leave some future national leader to deal with the consequences.

Meanwhile, another white elephant lumbers into view on the fringes of West London. Sadly, Heathrow’s third runway is back on the agenda. Seemingly determined to underscore the worst planning mistake in our post-war history, ministers have already given the go-ahead.

However, there is something than Sunak can do to protect us, and that is to make it entirely clear than this privately-financed project won’t receive a penny of public funding. It’s another chance to protect the public purse — and to prove he isn’t just opportunistic. 


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
9 months ago

HS2 is a great idea. Modern infrastructure and the freeing up of the West Coast mainline The problem is British incompetence, and yes if the Manchester part is cancelled then the government should feel humiliation. Humiliation for spending over £70B on 100 miles of track from West London to Birmingham. The fact that Crossrail and the Elizabeth line in London were also over-budget but were not cut shows everything about the geographical priorities of the idiotic UK. Spend nothing outside of London and then wonder why economic disparity is getting worse. There is very little holding the UK together, not just the 4 parts but holding England together, and as said before on this site it is just an address. Things like this just make that worse.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
9 months ago

There are 2 separate issues here, which this article tends to conflate. The first is whether HS2 was a good idea at all: I think it was, but in any event it was what was decided upon at the time. The second is how and why costs have spiraled out of control. How was that allowed to happen and who is responsible? Will anybody pay a price for throwing away billions of public money?

Andrew D
Andrew D
9 months ago

HS2 was always an unnecessary vanity project, there are plenty of better and cheaper ways of ‘levelling up’. And Sizewell C should definitely be abandoned. Build lots of small-scale nuclear power stations, as Sweden seems to be doing. Small is beautiful.

William Cameron
William Cameron
9 months ago

The problem here is the civil service. All their projects costs overrun their budgets because they do not have the competence to enter into fixed price contracts- nor to manage contracts.
if I say I will build a power station for a few million to a civil servants they give me the contract (the lowest tender) . They then fail to notice the traps in the contract giving me licence to ramp up prices.
They also fail to manage the subsequent servicing contracts .
But they have got degrees in knitting and think they are far too clever to learn contract law.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago

Having worked in both the public sector and private I agree that the public sector lacks the expertise to run these big projects. The reason I saw for this was that the wages on offer in the public sector were a long way behind those for comparable roles in the private sector, therefore most simply jumped ship at the first opportunity. The public sector in my experience was then left with those with little to no experience, and old workers who had long since clocked off and were just passing the time until retirement.
I’ve always thought it to be penny wise and pound foolish, whereby trying to save money by paying low wages ends up costing multiple times that saving when projects go miles over budget due to a lack of expertise.
However as a caveat I’ve spent the majority of my working life in the private sector, and I’m yet to see a commercial build come in on time and under budget as there are simply too many variables, so it’s not a problem confined to just the civil service

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

These projects are corporatist yet dispersed to favoured ‘partners’. This means that the corporatism doesn’t really need to come to fruition as the economic growth has already been achieved by the consultants and the pricey contracts they’ve negotiated for the state.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
9 months ago

Ever play the game of guess the author?
I often dive straight into an article, without looking to see who wrote it. Then I come across a characteristic line, and scroll to the top to confirm my suspicions.
In this case, there was an idiotic line that just screamed PETER FRANKLIN:
“Remember that only last week Sunak decided to delay the national rollout of heat pumps — a simple piece of kit that’s basically a reverse fridge.”
If heat pumps were a simple, sensible piece of kit (like LED lightbulbs), people would adopt them voluntarily, without the need for a government “rollout”.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

Lol. That line stuck me as well. I don’t think it’s as simple as the author suggests. Like you say, it would be done sleazy if it was.

Liam F
Liam F
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

yep, i’ll bet you the author has not had an air source heat pump installed himself. Because he’d be too cold to type in winter

Waffles
Waffles
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

I believe they are quite simple, they are actually reverse air conditioners with the cooling element on the outside. They don’t generate heat (lots of energy), they move it around (less energy). So in theory they should be cheap and simple but I’m not surprised the roll out is a total disaster in the UK. See HS2, 3rd runway and brexit for expected timescales and competence.

Nick Wade
Nick Wade
9 months ago

“ White elephant projects need to be stopped before they waste time and money ”

But then they wouldn’t be white elephants….

Last edited 9 months ago by Nick Wade
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

That’s an elephant of a different colour.

j watson
j watson
9 months ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

Like Brexit?

Waffles
Waffles
9 months ago

HS2, third runway, brexit. The same issues rumble on and on. Nothing gets resolved.

HS2 money could have upgraded what pass for trains in Northern England. There they have the top half of busses that have been welded onto train wheels. The ramshackle contraptions are a visceral reminder of the north’s place in the UK.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
9 months ago

I am not sure if I was in favour of HS2 or not – as a method of transportation, that is. I would have been against, simply because the UK can’t do these things any more.
I remember once driving around the motorway system listening to a phone-in programme. It was about a plan to connect Manchester and Sheffield with a motorway under the Pennines. Basically, the people in the north thought it was a good idea but those in the south didn’t. Today, the north desperately needs shedfulls of money (from the south) to stop the development of two separate countries as with North and South Italy. Maybe the failure of HS2 is a symbol of this separation.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The road and rail links between Sheffield and Manchester must surely be the worst between any comparable British cities, a mere 30 miles apart.

They consist of an hourly four carriage train service (surprisingly always overcrowded) and two twisting roads over the hills, without any dual carriageway in sight, that both converge at one set of traffic lights east of Manchester (surprisingly always gridlocked).

A fraction of the money thrown at HS2 could have resolved this glaring inadequacy.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

Let’s finish it, but build it to Brunel’s preferred gauge.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

Rishi Sunak has more white elephants in his sights.
That’s racist.