On 26 May The Times’ economics editor, Philip Aldrick, called for the HS2 high-speed rail project to be scrapped to provide funds for the National Health Service, which could be in need of as much as £56bn extra a year by 2033. After briefly outlining how the NHS is likely to suffer in the future unless additional money is found from somewhere, Aldrick noted that: “Wouldn’t it be handy, then, if the Government was already spending £56bn on a white elephant project that it could kill off?
“As luck would have it, it is,” he continued. “With karmic symmetry, High Speed 2, the rail link to cut journey times between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, is budgeted to cost exactly that and to be completed by 2033.
“Granted, the almost preternatural fiscal symmetry of HS2’s costs and NHS funding pressures is not an argument against the rail link,” Aldrick did concede. “But it is enough to make you take a second glance… Could the money be better spent?
“It is not too late to scrap HS2,” The Times’ economics editor went on. “Although they don’t say it publicly, politicians of all parties are reluctant passengers, trapped on a journey they would rather end but too ashamed to pull the handbrake. It is a cross-party white elephant, after all, a Labour proposal rubber-stamped by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010. Yet time is running out the closer 2019 comes and the more compulsory purchases are done.
“Assuming that Northern Powerhouse Rail pockets some of the HS2 pot, there would still be about £40bn for health,” Aldrick concluded. “The Government cannot afford to waste a penny on vanity projects [like HS2] as NHS spending grows like a cancer in the public finances, squeezing the life out of other departments.”
No such scepticism of the benefits of HS2, or high-speed rail in general, was expressed on the front page of the Metro newspaper on 29 May, however. Here, in a considerable publicity coup for the Greengauge lobbying group, a report on its latest publication uncritically suggested that high-speed rail was something that “would inject ‘rocket fuel’ into the economy”. Only on an inside page did Metro observe that: “Critics have raised doubts over the economic benefits of HS2… [and] there are also concerns about environmental damage and the demolition of hundreds of homes.”
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