The suggestion that HS2 could end permanently at Old Oak Common was an idea born of desperation. Although Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, appeared to knock it down, he actually left the door open to it with his slightly weaselly response in response to whether he was committed to ensure the line would reach Euston: ‘Yes we are. And I don’t see any conceivable circumstances in which that would not end up at Euston’. Hmmm, yes, but there are always ‘inconceivable’ circumstances – just think Covid or indeed Brexit and certainly the Chancellor was leaving the door just that bit ajar.
Actually it is a terrible and unworkable idea.The notion of stopping at Old Oak Common (only old trainspotters like me who used to bunk the best Great Western shed know where it is) came about because ministers have no clear idea of what to do with the project that is increasingly out of control and yet will apparently never hit the buffers. They are stuck between two totally undesirable outcomes, and have no way of getting out of the mess.
Regular readers of my work will know that I am no fan of the scheme which never had a clear purpose and which is sapping up huge amounts of money that could have been spent to create a proper 21st century railway for the whole country. However, irrespective of my views, the crisis over HS2 is all too apparent but is also irresolvable.
HS2 elicits opinions as firmly argued as Brexit and inevitably that generates more heat than light. Opponents of the project were quick to use the suggestion of not reaching Euston to highlight the profligacy and argue that it should be completely shelved given the cost of living crisis. Lord Berkeley, a long time sceptic of the line, suggested that while £20bn has either been spent or is committed, stopping the scheme now would only cost in the order of half that as some of the land could be sold off and contractors could be redeployed on other tasks. Politically, though leaving the Chilterns littered with half built tunnels and lengthy embankments leaving archaeologists of the fourth millennium to scratch their heads about their purpose. Moreover, Berkeley’s optimism about land sales is misplaced. Euston has been devastated with the loss of some excellent council housing (along with the house owned by Boris Johnson’s father), and while the land could be sold off, the original owners would surely claim they were entitled to any uplift. Scrapping hS2 would, too, be terrible politics as it runs counter to the Levelling Up agenda which is one of the few positive policies being pursued by the Tory government– even though personally I doubt HS2 will do much for the economy of the north. So scrapping the scheme is no easy option.
But then neither is continuing with it. Get this: £100m is being spent every week on the project and while that level of spending will tail off somewhat, there will be no benefits to be seen by the public before the proposed opening of the first section which has now been delayed to 2033, five years later than originally envisaged. Is it really feasible to keep on spending that amount of money at a time of financial crisis for large swathes of the population?
My solution: appoint a new head team – directly and not through a consultancy – whose task will be to slash all extraneous spending and enforce a new rigid financial discipline. And meanwhile, too, start selling it properly, too. No magic bullet then, but probably the only option available.