Westminster Outlook For several months now, MPs have been moaning that they haven’t got enough to do. At this time in most normal Parliaments, they would either be fighting an election or readying themselves for the implementation of the winning party’s manifesto. Five-year, fixed-term Parliaments, a condition of the Coalition agreement, has put an end to the incumbent Government’s ability to call a snap election when the polling is good, or to wait in hope that voters return to them. But this has left at least one lame-duck year, probably 18 months, when MPs are largely just positioning themselves for the next national poll.
Certainly, there’s a sense that the legislative programme has run out of puff. The Liberal Democrats are distancing themselves from their Conservative partners as they try to remind the electorate of their distinct, political voice.
However, MPs can stop complaining about their light workload when they return from Easter recess next week. One of the few topics outside of austerity and the economy that have dominated the David Cameron years reaches crunch time on Monday: the High Speed Rail Bill comes to the floor of the House of Commons. This will see the appointment of a Bill committee and a vote on Monday. A long debate on the passage of the Bill then takes place on Tuesday. MPs who believe that the High Speed Two (HS2) railway – initially connecting London and Birmingham – should form the spine of Britain’s remodelled public transport network will argue that this is £50bn well spent. Opponents, particularly Conservative backbenchers who represent constituencies to be dug up along the route, will vote against and issue clever amendments designed to sabotage the legislative process. They, for a start, don’t believe claims that for every £1 of HS2 investment there will be well in excess of £2 of benefits for the wider economy.
Much of British business – the Institute of Directors aside – wants HS2, and for good reason. There would be improved links between northern cities when the second “Y-shaped” phase to Leeds and Manchester is built. Tens of thousands of engineering and building jobs would be created for what remains of a construction industry that helps to underpin the British economy.
Also, there will be a quicker commute to London – an argument that those behind HS2 are reluctant to use, given the inevitable criticism that the railway is just another way of buttressing the economic dominance of the capital. Yet finding ways of getting workers to an economic super-centre quickly, and helping them to live in and reach other major cities, should not be sniffed at.
A few things have amazed me about HS2 as I have increasingly covered the story over the past 15 months or so. Firstly, that transport should have become such an agenda-setting issue when it was considered a desert of wasted ministerial effort under previous governments. The fiasco over where to build much-needed new airport capacity has only emphasised the sense that transport and infrastructure now really matters. Secondly, that politicians and civil servants still think they can get away with pulling a budget out of the air when costing massive projects. After the London 2012 Olympic debacle, when the £2.4bn figure entered during the bidding process was shown to be at best a guess and a good £6bn short, it is remarkable to think that officials came up with £33bn for HS2 – a figure that any experienced, big infrastructure engineer could have (and, in some cases, had) told them was a ridiculous underestimate.
Finally, there are the figures over the business case and the counter-claims from HS2’s many opponents.
Sadly, I wouldn’t advise taking too much notice of either either side’s statistical claims – just look at High Speed 1. What is better known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link saw its economic case completely undermined in the 1990s, following the unforeseen emergence and sensational growth of low-cost air travel. Millions of travellers expected to hop on a Eurostar to Paris or Brussels took to the skies more cheaply instead. Yet 2013 proved to be a record-breaking year for Eurostar, when the service carried 10.1 million passengers.
Lord Heseltine came up with the most sensible argument last November, even if it sounds anything but. Essentially, MPs should trust their instincts. “The guys with slide rules, they don’t know,” the peer said, which is an equally relevant point to both those for and against HS2.
I believe Britain does need this new railway. But the way HS2 has been run at times has seriously tested that faith – and I don’t think any MP could be blamed for saying no to HS2, provided it is an honest rather than an electoral, judgement.