White elephant projects need to be stopped before they waste time and money
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:
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.