Policy matters

The Chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins, recently addressed a conference organised in London by the Urban Land Institute (see footnote 1). According to a report of his presentation, Sir David confided to his audience that the promoters of HS2 “had failed to answer the fundamental question: why”.

I don’t often find myself in agreement with the Wizard of Oz, but this time I think that he has got it in one. He doesn’t have to look too far either for an example of a poor case being made for HS2. His own letter to the Financial Times recently made a series of unsubstantiated claims that I found far too easy to rebuff with a few easily-found facts (see footnote 2).

I don’t think, however, that Sir David should beat himself up too much about the poor showing he, and the project’s coterie of highly-paid PR merchants, have made in this respect. It could be that there just isn’t a believable case that can be made why the UK needs HS2. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which spin doctors are employed, even if they are expert practitioners of their trade, making HS2 seem a sensible proposition could just be an unachievable aim. Yet, politicians and others still seem to be willing to queue up to mouth the ludicrous claims contained in Government briefing papers, and risk putting their own credibility in jeopardy in the process.

A recent opinion piece by John Kay in the Financial Times develops a plausible theory to explain why the political class has clasped the HS2 viper to its collective bosom without being able to make a cogent case why the UK needs the project (see footnote 3). In this article, Mr Kay recalls asking a friend who worked in 10 Downing Street during the 1980s privatisation craze, just what was the rationale behind the, then, new big idea in economic policy. Mr Kay’s friend explained that his question betrayed a misunderstanding of “the nature of modern politics”. He elucidated:

“The policy is the policy because it is the policy. There is no more and no less to it than that.”

Whilst you might think that this theory is a sad reflection on the intelligence of the Westminster crowd, it does offer a rational explanation of the pro-HS2 phenomenon that we have witnessed in the past five years, or so. The article succinctly summarises the way in which the theory predicts that political support for a policy builds up:

“Projects acquire political momentum of their own. The original rationale is forgotten, if indeed it ever existed. Even those whose support was only lukewarm respond to criticism by becoming ever more committed advocates. They seize on whatever arguments are to hand to justify their position.”

In his article, Mr Kay charts the course that justification for the HS2 project has taken: conceived by a Labour government, according to Lord Mandelson, “as an infrastructure project to lift the economy out of the recession” despite having a lead time that made any such aspiration impossible; taken up by the incoming coalition government as a largely unexplained quid pro quo for dropping Heathrow runway expansion (an alternative that did not persuade the Davies Commission); justified by a business plan that relies heavily on business time savings, despite an increasing tendency for such travellers to make productive use of time spent on trains, as can be evidenced on any peak-time train service; a shift in emphasis to the additional capacity that HS2 would provide; and, a very contentious claim that HS2 would fuel economic regeneration of the provinces.

Mr Kay also cites the inquiry into HS2 by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, whose output he describes generally as “models of bipartisan investigation by intelligent people genuinely trying to ascertain the truth”, finding that “the Government has not made a convincing case for why this particular project should go ahead” and describing the analysis presented to justify the project as “seriously deficient” (see footnote 4). So the Lords EAC appears to have reached the same conclusion as Sir David Higgins; the question “why HS2?” has not been satisfactorily answered.

Mr Kay’s conclusion is that, the HS2 project is an example that follows his friend’s theory that “the policy is the policy because it is the policy”.

As he declares:

“There is no more or less to it than that”.

Footnotes:

  1. The conference Investing in Density – Concentrate or Miss Out was held on 22ndand 23rd June 2015. Sir David’s presentation was on the second day.
  2. See my eight-part blog series Paxo stuffing, beginning here.
  3. The article was published on 30thJune 2015, but is behind a paywall. I have not been able to locate a free-access version of the article.
  4. See paragraph 11 in the Our main conclusions and recommendations section of the Lords Environmental Audit Committee report The Economics of High Speed 2.
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