Be Careful What You Wish For


This week, David Davis helped to launch a report from the Taxpayer’s Alliance that suggested how the funding allocated to the HS2 high speed rail project could, in their opinion, be better used to fund 28 crucial transport projects across the country and still have some £4 billion in change.

The report says that the Taxpayer’s Alliance “asked all interested parties from across the United Kingdom to submit ideas for transport infrastructure projects” and that they were “lucky to receive and assess so many fantastic entries from all around the country”. All quite laudable, but before people voice their support too strongly, there are a couple of things that the media coverage that the report generated maybe missed that ought to be highlighted.

For example, re-opening the Skipton-Colne railway is estimated to cost £100 million by the Taxpayer’s Alliance. Yet this is significantly below the most recent figure estimated in a feasibility study commissioned by the Department for Transport. Re-instating passenger services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line is estimated to cost £50 million – Network Rail’s estimate is four times that.

The problem is that by inviting people to submit suggestions, those suggestions will inevitably have an inbuilt bias to make the schemes look attractive, in other words, they fall into exactly the same trap that the Taxpayer’s Alliance accuse their nemesis HS2 of doing – being too optimistic about a project’s actual costs.

This is better illustrated by the suggestion to replace the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) proposal with a ‘High Speed UK-North’ proposal for improvements to the “rail network bounded west to east by Liverpool and Hull and south to north by Manchester Airport / Sheffield and Newcastle” at an estimated cost of just over £18 billion. However, the plan published states, in small print, that it doesn’t actually take into account any improvements to the East Coast Main Line north of York – an absolutely key component of the NPR proposals. It’s no wonder that it’s cheaper if you miss off part of the planned network, and hardly a fair, or helpful, comparison. And I’m not too sure that the alternative proposal will do that much for the economy of the North East and Scotland if no improvements are planned in this area.

But such fanciful figures bely a much more worrying issue – that the Taxpayer’s Alliance are framing this as a choice between HS2 and local transport improvements. That’s exactly what those who have for so long underfunded transport the North would wish to happen.

Leaving aside the startling fact that the report suggests scrapping a national rail project that will bring longstanding economic benefits to the Midlands and the North and instead spending £6.8 billion on a new Lower Thames Crossing that the vast majority of people in those area will never use, the “either / or “ supposition is patently not true.

The National Infrastructure Commission were very clear in their report last year that, under the fiscal remit set for it by the Treasury, the country can afford HS2 and NPR and major road and rail improvements and a four-fold increase in local transport spending to deliver the suggested urban transit system in cities like Leeds. We should not, and can not, be fooled into thinking it’s a choice.

This myth is also a major flaw of the House of Lord’s Economic Committee report into HS2 that was published just after the Taxpayer’s Alliance one. By suggesting that it is a choice between HS2 and more regional and local investment in much-needed transport schemes, the Taxpayer’s Alliance does everyone in the North who has spent so much time over the last few years developing a coherent Strategic Transport Plan a grave disservice and potentially undermines much of the hard work that has gone into the North speaking with one voice.

But then, we all know how David Davis’ previous assertions of there being a better and easier way to deliver growth turned out, don’t we?

back to news