A man of few words

The most distinctive quality of Sir David Higgins’ HS2 Plus report is surely its brevity. The text sullies only seventeen sides of paper. The first three of these provide the Foreword, which also serves as an executive summary since there is otherwise none. The next seven pages, taken up by sections with the titles Context and HS2 – the catalyst for change, could best be described as yet another attempt at a justification for the HS2 project. I never cease to be amused by the convolutions and ingenuity that have been characteristic of the successive relaunches of this troubled venture – and this time the principal narrative is the implication that HS2 will encourage companies to relocate their head offices away from the capital and so contribute to the regeneration of the North (see footnote 1). However, I really don’t think that this section, which is expansive when compared to the brevity of the report as a whole, genuinely has a place in this document. As I understand it, Sir David’s remit – and nowhere in his report does he set out the terms of that remit – was to look at minimising costs and maximising benefits, not to investigate the raison d’être for the project.

I feel bound to comment in passing however on Sir David’s treatise on the need to improve Phase 2, particularly the desirability of improving its integration into the existing rail network in order to maximise the benefits to the North. I am sure that he is right to think this, but it left me wondering why the Midlands was not receiving similar consideration. Even on current plans, Phase 2 appears to be far more integrated into the existing rail network; Phase 1 is positively detached. So why does Sir David not want to improve Phase 1 to ensure that the Midlands receives maximum benefit from HS2? It could be that, hailing from Australia, Sir David is under the mistaken belief that the centre of our country is also nothing but bush and desert. Or might it be that he regards Phase 1 as too far down the line to be saved, and that it will serve best as a simple link between London and the integrated network that he is proposing north of Birmingham?

Once the Foreword, Context and HS2 – the catalyst for change sections are stripped out from HS2 Plus, a mere seven sides of paper remains for getting down to the brass tacks of the report. In less than two thousand words, Sir David makes six proposals:

  • To bring forward some work on Phase 2 to establish, by 2027, a new hub at Crewe, served by a high speed line link to London.
  • To bring forward the planned completion date for Phase 2 from 2033 to 2030.
  • To carry out a more comprehensive development of Euston Station and the surrounding area, similar to the regeneration of St Pancras and King’s Cross.
  • To scrap the HS1-HS2 link, as currently proposed.
  • To improve rail connectivity in the North in general, alongside the implementation of HS2 Phase 2.
  • To leave the budgets for Phase 1 and Phase 2 unchanged at this time.

As you might expect, seven sides of paper proves to be totally inadequate to allow Sir David to explain his proposals in any detail, or for him to offer anything other than the briefest justifications. In particular, the report is totally devoid of any costing estimates for the additional work associated with establishing the hub at Crewe and the more ambitions plans for Euston. Some additional information was provided by Sir David in support of his Manchester launch speech, in the form of a slide presentation. These slides included timeplans showing the critical role of the time required for the work at the London stations and how Phase 2 might be accelerated. The presentation also provided details of the figures arising from the cost review that has been carried out. It is frankly beyond me why this information has not been provided in the printed report.

I once had a geography teacher who marked homework out of ten. If you achieved 7/10 he would add the Latin word satis to indicate that your effort had been adequate. In all truth, I don’t think that my old geography teacher would have regarded Sir David’s efforts as worthy of a satis.

It would appear however that standards in Westminster are not as exacting as at my old school. In a clear demonstration of the talent that politicians have to totally disconnect from reality, the Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh MP, described HS2 Plus as “substantial and thorough” (see footnote 2). Would you credit it? I defy anybody who is of sound and independent mind to read HS2 Plus and then agree with Ms Creagh’s description.

Of course, what this is all about is politics. I am sure that Mary Creagh is fully aware that Sir David has effectively cocked a snook at her fellow Wakefield (area) MP, Ed Balls; the HS2 Ltd Chairman is clearly not about to yield any of the contingency in the budget voluntarily, despite Labour’s threats.

So why has Labour rolled over and curled up on Sir David’s lap so obviously? One possible reason is that Sir David has deftly passed the responsibility for completing HS2 under budget back to the Government; his message is that delays and dithering by politicians will add to project costs. This chimes with the Opposition’s accusations that the Government has mismanaged the HS2 project.

Another possible reason has been advanced by Norman Smith, Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC News, as quoted on the BBC News website:

“Sir David does appear to have brought Labour on board, by his idea of extending the line to Crewe by 2027.”

In my next posting I will look in more detail about what Sir David has said about the budget for HS2.

Footnotes:

  1. Beleben makes some interesting comparisons with the locations of head offices of companies based in France in one of his/her blogs.
  2. Ms Creagh made this comment in her response to the Transport Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons on Monday 24th March (column 31 of the House of Commons Official Report). In a subsequent blog she expands her assessment to “substantial, thoughtful and thorough”.

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on April 5, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Possibly corporate contributions to the parties are the spin off from agreement to support the Hybrid Bill. The explanation that Disney now presses the restart button on some projects films is helpful and perhaps a sensible Prime Minster would do the same or the Deputy Prime Minster should insist or the Leader of the Opposition withhold judgment until this is undertaken. Lemmings may realise British MPs exhibit the same trait on some issues. Unfortunately the desire to demonstrate ‘power’ as occurred for HS2 which is in need of review due to scope changes and better public reaction awareness and better understanding of the context that should have been considered in more depth in the beginning. My tendency is to support removal of current rail route constraints and then to consider none badly served areas where people cannot reach the capital and other areas of work. The idea of setting up offices considers catchment areas but mainly local and not long reach 100 mile to 200 mile distances.

    Reply

  2. Peter, I think you under-estimate Sir David Higgins. He has subtly rubbished HS2 by pointing out that it would connect a few cities to London that are already well connected, while failing to connect the northern cities together. In 2008 Lord Adonis proposed a new east-west railway connecting the northern cities together. His advisers decided differently and gave us the laughable HS2pid. Higgins poses other problems for HS2 that will not be cured by tweaking it. Cheryl Gillan MP wittily described revisions to HS2 as like putting lipstick on a pig. Our friends at StopHS2 might consider it as putting a pink frock on the white elephant. Only a complete review of HS2 from basic principles can give a sensible solution worth building. We have that solution in High Speed UK. You can see it at highspeeduk.com. I’m meeting Centro on Monday with the authors of HSUK for them to present their scheme. I suspect that Higgins has already realised that HS2 is a lemon and is manoeuvring to turn it upside down. He couldn’t walk into his job and say on day one “You’ve got it all wrong chaps”. Instead he’s already ditched some of the worst aspects of HS2 and called for a rethink of others.

    Reply

    • I like your optimism Les, but my poor assessment of Sir David Higgins is based on reading his HS2 Plus report, which I regard as inadequate. It is also plain that, so far, he has failed to deliver on his task to reduce the budget. I will be happy to revise my opinion should he live up to your expectations.
      As far as the possibility of changing the route, please refer to the report on a meeting that Sir David had with MPs at http://www.aboutmyarea.co.uk/Northamptonshire/Towcester/NN12/News/Local-News/270258-HS2-Meeting-With-Sir-David-Higgins. According to Andrea Leadsom MP, Sir David said that there are no plans to discuss substantial changes to the Phase 1 route, since his view is that it would cost billions to make changes now. Andrea Leadsom’s opinion is that “Sir David is not open to re-evaluating whether the route is correct”. I will mention this is my planned next blog but one “Sub-optimal decision making”.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Paddy Fell on April 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Yes, and it seems to me that the Higgins report opens up another possibility. It puts great emphasis on connectivity within the North, which is something that HS2 conspicuously fails to address, although, in fairness, HS2 was never intended to address it. If a Phase 1 including the line to Crewe gets final approval and is started, it makes it easier to propose a change to the Phase 2 route under which Leeds would be reached via Manchester rather than via Derby/Nottingham and Sheffield. This has the obvious risk of losing support in some areas, partly compensated for by gaining it in others. What it would do is to allow HS2 to bring improved connectivity within the North. It might also reduce overall cost. Otherwise any improved connectivity in the North is simply an additional cost and not a benefit from HS2 itself. That cost could of course be incurred – and the undoubted benefits reaped – quite independently of any HS2 project.

    Incidentally, the Crewe proposal also provides significant risk mitigation. At the moment HS2 is a monolithic project, huge both in time and in cost, with no intermediate stages where it could be abandoned without losing everything. London – Birmingham buys virtually nothing, most especially for the North. A Phase 1 that goes most of the way to Manchester would make it much easier to ditch the whole of Phase 2 if circumstances demanded that.

    Reply

    • Thanks for your views Paddy, and welcome to the site. I don’t disagree with your comments, but feel that they serve to validate the remarks that I made in the second paragraph of my blog about the wider Midlands being badly served by HS2. As you say “London-Birmingham buys virtually nothing”, but this also applies equally in the Midlands. Cities on the WCML, such as Coventry, Rugby and Stoke, which have suffered badly economically in recent years, will be by-passed by any economic benefits that HS2 may bring. Apart from Birmingham, the Midlands will get only one station, in the middle of no man’s land, and only if the eastern leg of Phase 2 gets completed as planned.
      I don’t have any real quarrel with the proposal for a hub at Crewe; it didn’t make much sense to me to go so close to Crewe and yet by-pass it, but please don’t tell the people of Stoke-on-Trent that I said that. However, the sums still need to be done to justify the additional expense. I suspect that the logic that you outline for building up to Crewe early was never far from the thinking of Sir David Higgins. However, I agree with Les and Cheryl Gillan about “lipstick on a pig”. I also agree with Les that there are probably much better ways of configuring a new railway line if the aim is really to relieve congestion, and the HSUK alternative is one possible way of improving the design to bring more cities into the benefit zone.

      Reply

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