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Boris Johnson may have to greenlight HS2 but he can say no to Heathrow expansion | Larry Elliott


Delays. The threat of sudden cancellation. Expensive. The story of HS2 is that of the modern rail traveller writ large. Now a decision on whether the £100bn-plus project should go ahead is imminent.

The are no certainties in politics but despite the misgivings of Boris Johnson and his senior Downing Street advisers it looks as if the green signal will be given for the line connecting London with Manchester and Leeds.

Channelling his inner Oscar Wilde, the prime minister seems to have concluded that the only thing worse than going ahead with HS2 is not going ahead with it. The official government report into the project rejects the idea that canning HS2 would lead to a flurry of alternative rail local improvements in the north of England. Instead, it says there would be an infrastructure drought at a time when the abysmal quality of service has forced ministers to renationalise Northern rail.

High Speed Two Ltd is set up by the Labour government to examine possibilities for increasing high-speed rail capacity in the UK.

The project is split into two phases – London to Birmingham forms phase one, with phase two extending the route to Manchester and Leeds.

The transport secretary, Conservative Justine Greening, announces the decision to build HS2.

A judicial review is called into the HS2 decision.

Lord Justice Ouseley upholds one of the 10 grounds for complaint about HS2 in the judicial review – the claim that the government had acted unfairly and unlawfully when consulting on compensation for homeowners affected by the route.

The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, describes the project as “absolutely vital” as MPs approve funding. The high-speed rail (London-West Midlands) bill is formally introduced in parliament.

After freedom of information requests, a 2012 Department for Transport viability report into HS2 is released, revealing the department considered it unaffordable.

Allan Cook replaces Sir Terry Morgan as chair of HS2, after the latter fails to deliver the opening of the Crossrail project in London on schedule.

A report from the New Economics Foundation suggests HS2 will deliver the most benefit to London, and exacerbate regional inequality.

A fresh government review into HS2 into whether the scheme should be approved, amended or scrapped entirely.

The Conservative transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announces that full HS2 services between London and Birmingham will be delayed by up to five years to 2031, and that the final completion of the northern section of the high-speed rail network would likely be delayed by seven years until 2040. He also confirmed the budget had escalated from the official £56bn at 2015 prices to up to £88bn at today’s prices.

The proposed date for the start of the service.

The politics of this are obvious. It would be a slap in the face to all those new northern Conservative voters if Johnson pulled the plug on HS2 and had nothing to replace it with. It would make a nonsense of his avowed intention to rebalance Britain’s regions.

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But the prime minister’s lack of enthusiasm for HS2 is palpable. Giving it the go-ahead looks like a bit of a personal setback. So how does he turn defeat into victory?

One way would be to combine final approval for HS2 with an announcement that the third runway at Heathrow will no longer go ahead. Business – which is keen on an expansion of London’s biggest airport – is waking up to this possibility.

“I am worried about the third runway at Heathrow,” one business leader said recently. “It hasn’t passed all its legal hurdles and everything has gone quiet. Anything could happen.”

From a Downing Street perspective, saying no to Heathrow expansion ticks a lot of boxes. For a start, the prime minister is a lot more hostile to a third runway than he is to HS2. When he was elected to parliament in 2015 he vowed to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent the project going ahead. When the issue came before parliament in 2018, the then foreign secretary was so embarrassed that he made sure he was out of the country and did not have to vote. It would do the prime minister no harm at all to be seen – for once – to be keeping his promises.

Johnson’s seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip will be affected by Heathrow expansion, but so will a lot of other constituencies in west London. There were not that many Conservative losses in the 2019 general election but two of them were in seats under the Heathrow flight path: Putney and Richmond Park. Brexit was the key issue in these heavily remain-voting seats, but the support given by Theresa May’s government to a third runway will certainly not have helped.

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The cost of a third runway at Heathrow is put at £14bn – a fraction of the current budget for HS2 – and the money is supposed to come from the private sector. But there have already been questions asked about the ability of Heathrow’s owners to find the cash necessary for the investment, leaving open the possibility that passengers and taxpayers will end up picking up a large chunk of the bill. In any event, the Treasury will have to stump up for the improved road and rail infrastructure that will be needed.

Potential emissions

Construction:

• Huge quantities of steel and concrete including concrete slab-track

• Moving construction materials to site

• Tunnelling (more carbon-intensive than open-air construction)

• Construction machines

• Removing soil by truck

• Manufacture of rolling stock

• Journey to work of HS2 employees

Operation:

• Power source not guaranteed to be renewable. Speed of HS2 requires more power

• Ongoing maintenance

• Increased car journeys to HS2 stations

• HS2’s better airport connections could increase flying

• Domestic flights reduced by HS2 could lead to increase in international routes

Potential savings

• Increased rail capacity shifts freight from road to rail

• Increased capacity leads to more local/regional rail journeys

• Modal shift with travellers choosing rail over more carbon-emitting road

• Travellers also switching from flying to high-speed rail

• Carbon sequestration from tree-planting

• HS2 could be powered by all-renewable energy

• HS2 prevents other carbon-intensive infrastructure projects

Sources:

HS2 Limited, 2019, High Speed Two phase 2a, Informationa Paper, E27: carbon

Friends of the Earth, Opportunity Costs of HS2, 2019

Lord Berkeley’s Dissenting Report, 2020

[Size of emissions not included because different scenarios give different estimates; figures have not been modelled for all these factors]

Saying no to Heathrow would also counter one of the criticisms levied by Labour councils in the north: that London and the south-east gets more than their fair share of public infrastructure spending. Sajid Javid is expected to announce new rules in his March budget that will lead to investment decisions being less focused on national economic growth and more on the impact it will have on helping poorer parts of the country. A tough approach to a third runway would help convince sceptics that the government means it when it says it intends to level up Britain.

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Last but not least, abandoning plans for a third Heathrow would burnish the government’s green credentials in the run-up to the crucial climate change summit being held in Glasgow later this year.

Ministers are desperate for COP26 to be a success but know that it will be judged a failure unless they can get international support for speedier action to reduce carbon emissions. One way of doing that would be for the UK to take the lead by noting an inconsistency between planning for a net zero carbon economy on the one hand and encouraging air travel on the other.

There are, of course, other factors for the government to consider. It is keen for Britain to be seen as an outward looking country after Brexit and international connectivity is part of the narrative. Business groups will kick up a stink, arguing there will be a loss to jobs and competitiveness, and that passengers will decamp from London to places such as Amsterdam and Frankfurt, where there is more capacity. Carbon emissions will go down in Britain, but go up elsewhere.

Still, the prime minister likes a big announcement and a grand bargain that involved yes to HS2 and no to Heathrow would fall into that category. Business is right: it has all gone very quiet on the question of a third runway. By no stretch of the imagination does Whitehall’s silence definitely mean that Downing Street is cooking something up, and there has been no briefing to that effect. But if Johnson is not rethinking government policy towards Heathrow expansion, then he ought to be.



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