HS2’s left-wing critics feed the “maxed-out credit card” myth at their peril

London Euston. Image: Getty.

The UK’s new railway HS2 is set to swoosh unsympathetically through the countryside just eight years from now. As such, it has attracted the usual clutch of opponents

But amid the concerned villagers, one group stands out. These critics hail from the left, and their issue is not the green fields, but a feeling that the money would be better spent on local transport networks in the cities. By killing HS2, goes this argument, its £56bn budget would be liberated for local causes.

Coming from the left, this is a curious way to frame an argument about spending. By linking the fate of HS2 to improvements in local transport, it reinforces the view that the barrier to local investment is the national finances. The implication is that, as things stand, there is no capacity left in the budget for local projects.

This is a frame of thinking straight from George Osborne: the “maxed-out credit card” which he skillfully deployed to cull a host of public projects and shrink the state. It also runs against Labour’s own economic position that austerity is a political choice, not a necessity.

In practice, the amount of money available depends on which infrastructure projects the government thinks worth investing in. It borrows what’s necessary to pay for them, because as long as the economic gain is more than the borrowing costs, the project will – eventually – pay for itself through increased activity.

The route. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Borrowing too much could eventually increase costs. But many economists argue we are far from that point. With the cost of public borrowing currently at a historic low, they say there’s plenty of room for more long-term public investment. The money is there for improvements in local networks without needing to take from HS2.

Virtuous circles

The real barrier to investing in local transport was that, until recently, the Treasury’s definition of “worth investing in” did not account for the cumulative effect that improved transport would have on local economies over time. Too much emphasis was placed on the effect projects would have in isolation, instead of seeing investment as part of a regional industrial strategy.

While poor connections held Northern cities back, London’s stronger economy justified higher public spending. But each project strengthened its economy further, which in turn strengthened the case for future investment – and so, it kept getting more and more.

That situation is now starting to change. Investing to improve the productivity of the “left-behind” parts of the country is high on the minds of Tory and Labour politicians alike. Strategic factors beyond the usual cost/benefit calculations are recognised as an important part of decisions. Ambitious plans are being drawn up in many cities.

The cheap money is out there to fund these plans. But HS2 or no HS2, cities won’t be able to take advantage of it until the government decides a sustained progamme of local investment is a political priority that will deliver growth.

Those who would simply switch out the budget from HS2 also have little to say on how to solve the issues that it’s needed to fix. Namely, more people travelling between Birmingham and the North; freeing-up space for manufacturers to import materials and export goods along existing lines; and relieving the unreliable and congested West Coast artery. Spending on local transport, while also vitally important, can’t resolve these.

Whether HS2 is technically the cheapest way to achieve the goals is a fair question. Endless reviews return the same conclusion: it is cheaper to build from new in the fields than pouring concrete around the current route, the most intensively used in Europe, while it’s still running.

More often, though, those who would see “the money” simply reallocated are silent on the goals, or argue that local networks are more important.

This is a shame, because it reinforces the myth of a zero-sum choice between equally important priorities. It implies that financial constraints, the “maxed-out credit card” is the problem. In fact, the long-running undervaluing of the importance of a balanced economy is to blame. It sets up the idea that local and national prosperity are mutually exclusive. Building a sustainable economy along the Green New Deal model demands both.

HS2’s critics on the left are right to fight for fairer investment in all parts of the country. But tying that need to HS2’s budget makes no sense – and risks feeding a dodgy spending myth that helps neither.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.