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Alistair Darling backtracks on 'foolish' HS2 rail project

Scheme risks draining funding from vital infrastructure projects over the next three decades, says the former chancellor

Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling has spoken out strongly against plans to build a high speed rail link from London to the Midlands and the North of England.

Writing in The Times, the senior Labour figure has emphatically denounced HS2, suggesting that the scheme risks draining much needed investment away from other infrastructure projects on the railways for the next 30 years.

 “The next government and the one after that will be very short of money to spend on the infrastructure we desperately need. To commit ourselves to spend so much on a project which rules out other major schemes seems foolish,” he warned.

He was suggested that the costs, currently estimated to be £46.2bn, could easily run out of control.

As chancellor from 2007-10, Darling approved the first stages of the project, a line from London to Birmingham. This change of heart is likely to be blow to the coalition, who are battling a mounting backlash against the scheme.

Mr Darling, who is currently heading up the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, believes that the business case for HS2 is exaggerated, arguing that there are better ways of encouraging growth outside London.

In his article he also attacked some of the details of the proposals, particularly the claim that HS2 would build on the existing link between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras station in London. He points out that the new line would not link with St Pancras, but rather with nearby Euston, an already congested station.

He used his experience as Transport Secretary under Tony Blair’s premiership, citing the West Coast upgrade “through tried and tested technology” as a an example of smaller-scale but better value infrastructure spending that would become impossible if HS2 is to go ahead as planned.

Explaining his reversal, he said that the facts had changed and that while the case for HS2 was “just about stateable” in 2010, he didn’t believe it was justifiable to spend public money in such a way any longer.

Mr Darling’s new-found opposition comes as the Times reports of concern to the HS2 plans within the Treasury, with some officials apparently starting to use the £73bn figure, the official cost added to VAT and inflation, to point out the scale of the project.

Aides to the chancellor George Osborne maintain that he will push to bolster public support to the rail project this autumn.