Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Government’s decision to scrap Phase 2 of HS2 and press ahead with Phase 1, the decision has thrown into stark relief the nation’s weak infrastructure and lack of plans to deal with it.
Yes, I’ve always been critical of the whole HS2 scheme which, from the start, was over-specified and ill-integrated with the rest of the network and which turned into something of a gravy train for some. I’ve had quite a lot of abuse from its supporters too, many of whom seemed to regard it as some precious heritage railway. Even stranger, they seemed to believe that insulting critics was a way of securing support.
But I’ve always said we need some real long-term planning and investment for rail transport in this country and the decision throws lack of that into stark relief. The “Northern Networks” announcement which accompanied the decision was pretty near imbecilic. Yet-to-be-borrowed money for rail became yet-to-be-borrowed money to build roads or (often non-existent) rail schemes.
It just showed how dire national transport planning is in England.
I suppose there comes a time in everyone’s life when one concludes: “This country is in a mess”. But given our present economy and infrastructure, it’s pretty hard to conclude otherwise. Yet even so, we face growing emergencies in climate, nature, food, water, drainage, flood defence and social housing, not to mention the threats from international conflict.
Seven years ago, Smart Growth UK published a report called A Sustainable Stimulus Programme. The report was a little delayed by the no-show of a putative sponsoring body, but the message remains relevant.
“Politicians across the spectrum and business now agree more public investment is needed in infrastructure, both for its own value and for the stimulus it will provide the post-brexit economy,” it began.
Well, maybe – they certainly should have. The report illustrated the possibilities with Smart Growth based examples in land reclamation (for house building etc.), urban-rail capacity and regeneration-through-heritage.
However, we are where we are, as politicians like to say. Where we are is in a right mess and ill-prepared to deal with mounting challenges.
Our national economy only pays its way in good times. Now it’s labouring under a £2.5 trillion debt after 15 years of economic crises, debt-financed “austerity” and spending cuts, brexit, pandemic, international crises, tax breaks for the wealthy, failure to invest in sustainable industries and infrastructure etc..
The HS2 saga was a symptom of that, as was its supporters’ response. To suggestions we need a national review of rail capacity, there was the usual chorus of claims that HS2 was about capacity. Indeed, but we don’t just need capacity increases on the WCML or even both legs of HS2. What about the dire state of east-west capacity in many places? And much else? What about the dire state of rail electrification?
Critics also claimed HS2 had been reviewed endlessly. Yeah, right. I have to say most of them were Whitehall reviews and the decisions eventually taken to progressively lop off Phase 2 and delay the Euston branch showed national decision making at its worst.
But Storm Babet has given us a timely reminder that climate-change is now galloping away and – despite pathetic attempts at diversion from politicians or the Treasury – demands urgent action.
Long-term action. Beginning now.
For most of the country, our local and regional drainage and flood control must now be considered unfit for purpose.
Just look at it – this storm (for most of the country) involved a rare easterly gale, but it still brought unprecedented flooding to many places, lots of which had never been flooded before.
Storms are becoming more intense and less predictable and are turning nasty in unprecedented places. Sea-level rise is accelerating and wave-climates are changing.
But where’s the national debate? All we get is politicians arguing over how much of the nation’s farmland should have market housing dumped on it, denying us the food, water and flood storage it provides.
With inequality denying ever more of us the benefits of a consumer-based economy, is it time for politicians to start thinking about the future, and not just the next general election?