Thursday 28 September 2023

Is going nowhere a viable option?


They say that Christopher Columbus was a man who didn’t know where he was going when he set out, didn’t know where he was when he got there, and didn’t know where he’d been when he got back. In all sorts of ways, that makes him an eminent role model for the current Prime Minister. In Sunak’s case, he doesn’t know whether the best time to announce the cancellation of the high speed link to Manchester is before he goes, while he’s there, or after he comes back. It’s not a question to which there is any ‘right’ answer, although his difficulty is probably based, at least in part, on a lack of understanding as to why on earth anyone would want to go to Manchester anyway, compounded by incredulity as to why people who really must go there don’t just follow his example and charter a helicopter. He could, of course, simply announce that the line will go ahead and that he never intended to cancel it in any case. That might lead to a few awkward questions about why he didn’t just say that a few days ago when the suggestion of cancellation started being floated, but a man who has never knowingly given a straight answer to any question should not find that too much of a problem. And it’s not as if scrapping policies which he’d never proposed in the first place is exactly a new tactic for him, given that he’s already scrapped the non-existent seven-bin policy, the meat tax, and compulsory car-sharing. (Just think how much money he could save by cancelling the UK’s manned mission to Mars. Or even to infinity and beyond. Indeed, if he scraps enough non-existent policies, he could save enough money, mathematically, to solve the cost-of-living crisis and put the UK’s budget into a very healthy surplus.)

The more substantive question – whether or not there should be a high-speed line to Manchester – is not as simple or straightforward as many suggest. There is no doubt that the construction is hugely expensive, although (even accepting that the UK is more densely populated), there are serious questions to be asked as to why it takes so much longer and why the cost is so much higher in the UK than in countries such as France and Spain which have built entire networks. And there is no doubt that the construction is environmentally damaging; if the question were as simple as ‘build it or don’t build it’, the arguments against would be strong ones, particularly if the argument for is little more than saving a little bit of time on the journey. The alternative, though, is most definitely not to do nothing. Short of actively preventing people from travelling (either by direct prohibition or else by making the cost prohibitive to those who can’t simply charter a helicopter), the demand for travel is increasing, and that leads to a need for more capacity. The question is about how to provide that capacity.

There are options. The UK could build more roads – either completely new ones or by adding lanes to existing ones. Or it could expand airport capacity, involving extra runways and terminals, more planes and higher frequency flights. There are already multiple daily flights from Heathrow to Manchester and back, with a flight time of a little over an hour, but Heathrow is more or less operating at full capacity already which is why it wants to build an extra runway. With its extensive network of high speed lines, France has already announced an (albeit imperfect) ban on all internal flights where the train journey takes less than 2.5 hours. If high speed trains were to run all the way to Scotland, and if the high speed network were to be extended to the south of Wales and the West of England, a similar policy in the UK would eliminate most domestic flights.

The question is not whether HS2 is environmentally damaging, but whether it is seen as a stand-alone project or part of a network linking the UK to the European network and how the degree of damage caused compares with the other options. The cheapest and least damaging option is very clear – reduce the extent to which people travel at all. If that’s unpalatable, then a network of new fast and reliable rail links is probably the least-worst option. But ‘doing nothing’ is no option at all. Unless you're Rishi Sunak and looking no further than the next election.

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