Election result could push HS2 costs even higher

Westminster 133x102As a taxpayer-funded, big-government project that confiscates property and despoils swathes of countryside, High Speed 2 is anathema to genuine conservatives. Even within the modernised, rebranded Conservative Party there remains significant opposition.

This hasn’t been fully reflected in MPs’ voting record. Politicians often put their careers before principle. They won’t rebel against their own leaders unless there is a reasonable chance of it succeeding. HS2 was never likely to be stopped in Parliament while it was supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The slender government majority dramatically increases the power of backbench Tory MPs, however. As shown by the Major years of the 1990s, they now have the power to cause immense disruption.

This is likely to translate into ‘logrolling’ behaviour – i.e. the trading of favours. Backbenchers will be able to trade their support for vital legislation in return for concessions on policies that matter deeply to them.

MPs along the HS2 route will therefore have ample opportunity to exploit the government’s weakness (although whether they choose to do so will depend on the resolve of the individuals concerned).

Unless there is a major change in the policy of opposition parties, this would probably not jeopardise the project itself, at least initially. It would mean, though, that the MPs could have the whip hand when it came to demanding more spending on environmental mitigation in their constituencies.

Possible outcomes include longer tunnels, route changes and more generous compensation for affected residents – measures that would add significantly to the already bloated costs. While those close to the line would benefit, taxpayers would lose out. Concentrated interests would once again triumph over the wider population.

Another increase in the project’s budget would also present difficulties for governments already struggling with high public debt and sluggish economic growth, particularly given the huge off-balance-sheet costs of HS2. In the longer run, it could therefore make full or partial cancellation more likely.

 

See The High-Speed Gravy Train for more detailed analysis of the political economy of High Speed 2.

See the Economics of HS2 page for short introductions to the key aspects of the scheme.

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