Monday, 11 November 2019

Environment Monday - Election Issues - Should environmentalists support HS2

If you've read our environment Monday column before, you can skip this paragraph. It just explains what it is all about. So you want to save the planet, combat climate change, leave a legacy for your children that you can be proud of but you just don't know where to start? I started the Environment Monday series of blogs to try and spread a few practical ideas, things that are practical and work. I'd love your ideas, guest blogs and help. The old adage of think global, act local has been my mantra for decades. If we all start with ourselves, look at our lifestyles, look at the small changes we can make in our carbon footprint, on our own we will make a miniscule difference, but if we do it and it works, maybe our friends will sit up take, notice and over time (which is precious), together we can start to make a big difference. Each week, we will explore a different theme, a different way that we can all make a difference.

As the election grows closer, we take a look at some key issues in detail and we ask whether the parties position is consistent with a green agenda. Today we look at the HS2 project. Lets start with the Green party position.

The Green Party has responded to news the Government is considering scrapping HS2, ahead of a broadcast of Channel 4’s Dispatches tonight.              
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, said:
“Ministers are right to doubt HS2 – this vanity project is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money and it’s time they put it out of its misery. HS2 is already inflicting environmental vandalism on our countryside and woodlands as the cost of the project continues to spiral. Ditching this project would save billions and allow thousands of jobs to be created by investing in desperately needed upgrades to local rail networks.”
I've got to say I'm highly disappointed with this statement, for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the brevity of what they have to say. The Green party view is that the money would be better spent on 'upgrades to local rail networks'.  Of course there are hundreds, if not thousands of small upgrades to local rail networks that are desirable, but lets for arguments sake, say that there would be £80 billion in the pot to for such improvements, if HS2 was scrapped. What are these schemes and is there genuine evidence that they would deliver a lower carbon footprint for the UK than HS2? Since my children have been at University, I've made dozens of journeys to Manchester, Leeds and York, on the A1, M6 and M1. I also regularly travel to Manchester on the train.

It is clear to anyone who has made such journeys regularly that the M1 corridor and the railway to Birmingham and Manchester is overloaded and overcrowded. One of the benefits of HS2 that seems to be a blind spot in these arguments, is that it will free up space on the existing routes for freight and local services. Running high speed express services and low speed freight and suburban services on the same tracks limits the number of train paths on the route. There is a clear market for fast travel between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. This is why we've seen ever increasing numbers of highly polluting local flights. The sad truth is that infrastructure projects are expensive and cause a degree of environmental destruction, but this has to be weighed against the bigger picture. The Green party are right to call for more investment in local services. What they need is a coherent plan with specific schemes and costings. I believe that many of the schemes that are needed would effectively be self financing. If they return a 3-5% return on investment, then this would offset the cost of interest and deliver a return. The economic stimulus and the reduction of CO2 production is an added benefit. Schemes such as the West London Orbital Railway are obvious examples.

The other party which is opposed to HS2 is the Brexit Party. They say

“The Brexit Party welcomes the news the government is waking up to the fact there is no business case for HS2. 
“Once again, we led the way on a critical issue, highlighting how the money can be better spent elsewhere, and now the Tories are moving to copy another of our policies. 
“I really hope this review comes to the right conclusion, but The Brexit Party remains the only party fully committed to scrapping this failed and unpopular £100 billion white elephant.
“We want to invest in the regions and in infrastructure projects which benefit areas other than London, generating real economic growth across the UK.” 
What is striking is that the Brexit party statement is very similar to the Green party. It is interesting that they rather dishonestly claim they are the only party fully committed to scrapping the scheme, ignoring the fact that the Greens have been championing this cause for years before the Brexit party ever existed. Like the Green party, they talk about other projects, but don't actually bother to name any. They want to invest in the regions, but do not mention that one of the biggest impediments to regional growth is our creaking travel network.

Although the Conservatives are conducting a review of HS2, Boris is a known lover of big infrastructure projects, so it is unlikely that this will do anything other than make a few cosmetic changes. Labour and The Lib Dems also support the project.

My view is that the UK needs a plan for our transport infrastructure and a holistic view, rather than a whole swathe of stand alone schemes, that get agreed, cancelled, postponed, downgraded. At the botrtom of my garden, I have the M1 motorway and the Midland main line. The Thameslink service is a prime example of how investment in a railway can transform its fortunes and deliver huge benefits. When I started work in 1981, the line was called the Bedpan line. Clapped out diesel railcars shuffled between Bedford and St Pancras and around 5,000 people a day used the service.

Firstly it was electrified, then the route was opened up to Blackfriars, via a disused former freight tunnel. That happened in 1988. As I was working in Blackfriars at the time, this was a highly useful improvement. The latest figures show 28,000 people use the service in the central area. By any and every measure the service is a stunning success. Over 5,000 journeys a day are made from Mill Hill Broadway alone.  Anyone who has seen the service develop,  would realise the benefits of big infrastructure schemes. Three of the stations on the route, St Pancras, Blackfriars and London Bridge have had massive investment and are unrecognisable from the 1981 versions. When Crossrail opens in 2021, Farringdon will also be transformed into a massive hub, with connections to Heathrow. Crossrail is another project that has caused huge and painful change. It has been called a 'White Elephant' by many of the same people that criticise HS2. It is clear that it has been badly managed by both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan, as London Mayors. Boris set up the structures to deliver the project and Sadiq Khan has let these run out of control. It seems that it is a given that such projects will spiral out of control. I have a theory that this is all a subterfuge to con the British public. Rather than tell us the true cost, we get conned into signing up, on unrealistic budget quotes. These are then bumped up when it is too late to change things, to the true cost. Whilst some may hold their hands up in horror, I think it is a simply a sad reflection on the British psyche, where we always want to do jobs on the cheap.

When people such as the Green Party and Brexit Party say that HS2 will cost £100 million, there are three things they fail to mention.  The first is that this is the cost of the project, but much of that comes straight back to the Treasury. Every single worker on the project pays income tax and NI, every company pays corporation tax and VAT. Every worker spends their wages in shops, paying VAT on products. They buy homes and pay stamp duty, they buy cars to get to work and pay fuel duty. Their wages are spent in shops, pubs, restaurants, creating jobs in other sectors and keeping people off benefits. So when all of this is subtracted, what is the real cost? As  to the environmental aspect of this, we can only really address the challenges that we face, if the economy can support the cost of decarbonisation. There are some interesting policies coming out of the parties, such as the Lib Dems plans for grants for energy efficient homes. These will only be delivered if there is a vibrant economy. My hope for the future is that we can build sustainable industries, low carbon homes and world beating green solutions, and we need the cash to invest to do that.

The second factor that is ignored is the cost to the economy of traffic congestion. According to a report in February, congestion costs the country £8 billion a year. As London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are some of the countries most congested road routes, relieving this will give a huge payback over the lifetime of the railway. Of course there will be claims that other schemes could relieve congestion more effectively. If this is true, then they should detail these schemes with a cost justification, rather than the bland statements that say nothing. There is a clear benefit to the environment in having less traffic congestion and more people on the railways. Cars sitting in queues on roads are perhaps the worst of all worlds.

The third factor and one which I hardly ever see mentioned is that the UK can only grow and be successful as a world player if people see that we are investing in our future. For foreign companies looking to expand, projects such as HS2 open up opportunities. There is an interchange at Old Oak Common with links to Heathrow. If you are the CEO of a foreign company looking to build your business in Europe, what things would give a City such as Birmingham or Manchester an advantage over their competitors? People who don't run businesses don't understand this, but as someone who runs a business with an international client base, I know for a fact that the Thameslink service to Mill Hill gives us an edge on many competitors. If I was a Far eastern Car Manufacturer, looking to take advantage of the amazing engineering infrastructure in Birmingham, Crossrail would be a big incentive, making it a far easier destination for execs etc flying into Heathrow to visit the business and suppliers etc. How can you quantify this? It is hard, but these sort of issues feed into decisions.

You may say what has this got to do with the environment? Do we want foreign companies building car factories in Birmingham and flying into Heathrow?  The answer is that the factories will be built somewhere in Europe, the journeys made, so we want to mitigate this as much as possible and an electric railway is by far the best way.


No comments: