Unions say it will reduce flights and car trips while environmentalists say it will damage habitats.
After many false starts, the HS2 got what seems a final ‘green light’ today from Boris Johnson.
The idea to build a high-speed railway line between London and Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham was originally thought up by Labour in 2009 but has been delayed because of mismanagement and cost overruns.
As today’s reactions showed, opinions on HS2 don’t divide on normal ideological lines. It is unpopular with many Tory MPs, environmental groups, the Green Party and Scottish and Welsh politicians who feel left out. On the other hand, it is supported by the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, big business and the trade unions.
The railway union ASLEF is particularly pleased, saying it will make the UK better connected and help the UK tackle climate change. Their general secretary Mick Whelan said:
This is good news – albeit long overdue, because dithering and uncertainty helps no one – because Britain needs not just a new high speed rail line but a new high speed rail network. We have always argued that HS2 should run the length of the UK, being built from Scotland, and the south of England, at the same time, meeting in the middle, linking HS1, and going via Heathrow.
‘Shaving a few minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham – which is what its critics like to claim – was never what this project was all about. It was, and is, a plan to build a better railway for Britain in the 21st century, to free up pathways for passengers and freight, and to bring prosperity to every corner of our country.
‘The project has been criticized by environment campaigners but HS2 is part of the solution to climate change – because rail is part of the green agenda – and will mean fewer cars, fewer lorries, and fewer carbon emissions. If we are serious about climate change – and want a true, integrated transport network – then HS2 has to be delivered.’
“If HS2 does not go on to Leeds and Manchester, what becomes of the much-trumpeted Northern powerhouse? And what is the purpose of the project?
‘HS2 has been backed by both Labour and Conservative governments, by the trade unions, and by British business, and is vital to rebuilding our nation. To have stopped HS2 in its tracks would have sent out the wrong message to the countries with whom we hope to do new trade deals that Britain is stuck in the past, not looking to the future.’
The trade union Unite is also happy, saying its good news for the economy and pointing out that HS2 was originally Labour’s idea.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “The decision to go ahead with HS2 is good news for the economy in general and is an immediate fillip to the construction sector.
“When HS2 was originally proposed by the previous Labour government it enjoyed cross party support, in its vision to better connect London to the North West and Yorkshire, generating a significant boost for business.
“The review of the northern sections of HS2 must not be an excuse for further delays, instead the government must look on how the final completion date can be brought forward, while applying joined up thinking. Ensuring that an effective cross Pennine northern rail line is linked into HS2 and built as soon as practical.
“Public procurement must be for public good and that means a respect for workers’ terms and conditions. If HS2 is going to be delivered without further delays or cost increases it is imperative unions play a full part in the project.
“There can no room as the HS2 project now fully moves forward for the bad practices of Costain and Skanska to be allowed re-occur.”
Liberal Democrat interim leader Ed Davey also cautiously welcomed the project, claiming the environmental case for it was strong.
“There are huge questions about how the Conservatives have mis-managed HS2 so badly, but the climate case for expanding Britain’s railways remains a strong one.
“Yet HS2 alone won’t unite the country, bring economic benefits to the Midlands and North or cut the demand for domestic flights to help our climate unless it’s part of a bolder rail revolution.
“Above all, we must improve railway links east to west, with train lines that don’t always have London as their destination.”
Friends of the Earth’s campaigns director, Jamie Peters disagreed with the unions and Lib Dems though, saying it wouldn’t help tackle pollution and would threaten habitats.
He said: “HS2 is a costly and damaging mistake which will threaten wildlife, destroy ancient woodlands and do nothing to reduce climate-wrecking pollution.
“Anyone who has tried to take public transport recently can tell you why building HS2 is completely the wrong decision. The estimated £100 billion earmarked for this project would be better spent fixing the dilapidated commuter rail network and funding other initiatives to encourage people out of their cars.
“The government’s £5 billion sweetener on bus and cycling infrastructure is a nod in the right direction but falls way short of the investment required to build the low carbon transport infrastructure that the climate crisis demands.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas echoed Friends of the Earth’s concerns and said the money should be invested in other forms of public transport.
She said: “Less than two weeks ago, the Government launched its Environment Bill with great fanfare saying it would put the environment at the centre of policy-making. The ink is barely dry on that bill when it greenlights HS2 which will destroy or damage hundreds of important wildlife sites, areas of ancient woodland and local nature reserves.
“Some of these sites are supposed to have legal protection, yet they are to be swept aside by the HS2 leviathan. It’s not only the promise of last month’s Environment Bill which is being betrayed, so is the government’s commitment to develop a Nature Recovery network to protect and restore wildlife.
“Our nature and wildlife is being wiped out at a terrifying rate and projects like HS2 add yet more harm. This is not protecting the environment for future generations, it is destroying huge areas of irreplaceable natural habitat. The greenlighting of HS2 is a decision we will rapidly come to regret.
“When two out of five job-seekers are stopped from getting a job beause of a lack of public transport and many without cars would struggle to get to a hospital, it’s clear our public transport network is threadbare. That is what needs to be adddressed, with new rail connections which will make a bigger difference to more people’s daily lives.
The SNP wants the money to be spent improving Scotland’s rail links. Their leader in Westminster Ian Blackford said:
“If the Prime Minister is truly committed to rail connectivity across these islands, he should engage with the Scottish Government to improve rail links from Scotland to the major cities in the North of England such as Manchester, Newcastle and beyond.
“With the UK government seeking a review of the second phase to build the line in the north of England, Scotland must not be left last in line.
“Building the line from the south up simply does not address connectivity, and if the UK government want to make real progress and real improvements work should also start to improve the connections from Scotland to the north of England and onto London.
“However, the announcement also raises some serious questions about the Tory government’s sheer mismanagement of the project, the spiralling costs attached to it, and the endless delays.
“And no number of Prime Ministerial vanity projects will ever heal the economic damage and the damage to connectivity which this Tory Brexit will inflict.
“The Prime Minister should provide the estimated £20 billion for this project to the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive so that they can spend these monies on their own priorities.”
Some in Wales are not happy either. Labour MP for Aberavon Stephen Kinnock said the line to Swansea could be electrified for less than 1% of the cost of HS2.
Prof Mark Barry, who helps advise the Welsh Government on transport, was not happy either. He told the BBC HS2 “does not benefit Wales at all”.
“As it is now,” he said, “we’re supporting a massive scheme in England with no benefit to Wales – and getting no funding. And that’s outrageous.”
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