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Nigel Hastilow: Is it too late to slam the brakes on HS2?

Nigel Hastilow | Published:

The high-speed link from Birmingham to London is gathering steam – but amid an office boom and rising house prices, the budget billows too.

Has the HS2 gravy train gone too far to be stopped?

The only high-speed element of the planned railway between London and civilisation at the moment is its budget, which seems to be running on rocket fuel.

The HS2 project, likely to arrive four years later than timetabled, is already running so far over budget even its biggest supporters are beginning to doubt if it can ever be value for money.

The problem is that the HS2 train is already on the move. Is it possible to slam the brakes on now, just as it’s gathering steam, or is it already too late to stop it?

The promise of a high-speed link from Birmingham to London has already excited so many people that bringing the project to a halt might well be disastrous for the whole of the West Midlands’ economy.

Take house prices, for instance. According to the latest surveys, prices in Wolverhampton and Birmingham are among the 10 fastest-rising in the whole of Britain.

Taxpayers have already forked out billions of pounds

In the region as a whole, house prices are rising by seven per cent, twice the national average.

There are other reasons for this as well - notably the Government-funded scam for first-time buyers which shovels loot into the hands of the big house-builders.

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But the main reason is because of HS2. Buyers believe the train service will make it easier for them to commute to London.

Meanwhile the region is attracting big businesses to relocate to the West Midlands. According to commercial property consultants Lambert Smith Hampton, there is an office boom under way as companies follow Deutsche Bank and HSBC away from London.

Of course, this is partly because prices are much lower in the West Midlands but it’s also because companies planning for the future believe it won’t be long before their employees can hop on a train to London as easily as they can take the tube from Wimbledon to the city.

It doesn’t stop there. The region’s entire transport system is being redesigned around HS2. There is a National College for High-Speed Rail and plans for a mini-new town near Solihull.

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They’re even holding a conference in November to show how the train will ‘drive economic growth, accelerate the delivery of new homes, create new jobs, drive regeneration and development’.

And we taxpayers have already forked out billions of pounds buying up blighted properties, designing and redesigning the route, awarding engineering contracts (even giving one to Carillion weeks before it went bust) and paying off whistle-blowers through generous redundancy payments.

This gravy train is gathering speed. Local authorities and other public bodies, including colleges and universities, not to mention businesses and individuals, have massive financial interests in keeping HS2 on track.

And yet, despite all this, there are those who continue to argue the money would be better spent on improving smaller, more local modes of transport – or even that the State would be better off not spending the money at all.

Terry Morgan talks to George Osborne and Danny Alexander

Luckily HS2 is getting a new chairman. A Birmingham University engineering graduate, Sir Terry Morgan, who has been doing a similar job building London’s £14.8 billion Crossrail line.

Unluckily, and ominously, Crossrail’s construction costs are running 25 per cent ahead of budget. That’s chicken feed compared with what have been called the ‘petrifying overspends’ already incurred by HS2.

It’s supposedly on the hook for £4.7 billion to buy up 11,000 properties in the way of the line but the budget for that is only £2.8 billion.

In one case, HS2 allocated £3,800 to purchase land near Lichfield only to find it’s at Whittington Heath Golf Club, near Lichfield, where it will have to replace the Victorian clubhouse and five of its 18 holes at a cost of £15 million.

That’s just part of the problem.

A Government report suggests the supposed £56 billion cost could rise by 60 per cent to more than £80 billion and says the scheme is ‘fundamentally flawed’.

If nothing had yet been spent, and no plans laid, it would be nice to think our political masters would dismiss the idea as an absurd waste of public money.

Why spend billions just so a few rich business-types can save 20 minutes on their trips out of London?

Of course, the line will have economic benefits beyond the station car park – it is impossible to spend tens of billions of pounds without producing some positive economic gains.

But the Government is giving dozens of companies – many of them not even British – unhindered access to a their own magic money tree.

Some politicians are still prepared to chop it down but the runaway train now has a life of its own and the longer this goes on the more the taxpayer will be throwing good money after bad.

Hot and bothered

Talking of railway trains, this is being written on a Chiltern Mainline train from London to Kidderminster in a carriage filled with sweltering passengers.

It’s boiling hot outside, of course, but unfortunately it’s even hotter inside because the air conditioning isn’t working today.

According to the ticket-collector, the ‘engineer’ who investigated the problem before the train left Marylebone says the air-con will work ‘intermittently’.

It seems ‘intermittently’ actually means ‘not at all’ though in fairness to the poor man, who has been harangued by several overheated passengers, he is at least handing out bottles of water to keep us cool.

It does make you wonder why our railway companies are so inept, though.

Smart but dim

Unless the Government forces us by law to endure the presence of a spy in our households, I for one will continue to refuse to have a ‘smart meter’ installed.

We keep getting salespersons on the phone who express astonishment that anybody might object to the idea but these devices are completely untrustworthy. They don’t save you money. All they do is monitor how much fuel we use, which supposedly makes us think twice about using so much of it.

Many of them are worse than useless because, if you switch energy supplier, they don’t work properly. And all the time, your supplier is keeping an eye on you.

I really object to the idea some anonymous computer takes notes every time I turn on a light.

Congratulations

The ridiculous BBC behaved with horrible glee when the police unnecessarily raided Sir Cliff Richard's home in the hope of turning up evidence the singer had been guilty of sexual misbehaviour back in the day.

But the award of £210,000 in damages to Sir Cliff from licence payers’ pockets is another nail in the coffin of an open society.

From now on, the media will be wary of reporting when someone is under investigation. That will be good news for the possibly innocent party but will certainly allow predators to escape scrutiny.

Meanwhile, our Parliamentarians have awarded themselves anonymity if and when one of their number comes under investigation. Don’t want the world to know, as Sir Cliff almost said.

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