HS2 is a solution in search of a problem

An anti-HS2 cow. Image: Getty.

Escalating costs on a large infrastructure project in the UK is hardly news. But reports that the High Speed 2 rail line (HS2) might now cost up to £106bn, almost double last year’s estimate, is extreme even for this country.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Industry experts have warned for years that HS2’s costs would overrun, with some forecasting that it could cost between 20 per cent and 60 per cent more than the £56bn sum the last government signed off.

Work on HS2 has hardly started and yet, throughout its 10-year political life, cost projections have more than tripled, from £33.3bn to today’s sum, if the Financial Times’ reports of the government’s review of the scheme are to be believed.

Without seeing the full review, it is hard to make firm assumptions. But when we analysed the economic and strategic case for HS2 at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) last year, we calculated that if the cost of the scheme went up by 60 per cent (which took the total to around £90bn) with no increase in benefits, it would no longer pass the government’s value-for-money tests.

Infrastructure schemes that are not good value for money but are viewed as strategically important, can still be given the political nod from the Treasury – but then the problems they are solving have to be important ones, and the solutions rock solid. In HS2’s case they are not.

Proponents of HS2, including the Department for Transport, will say that it frees up capacity on the existing West Coast Mainline that can be used to relieve overcrowding on trains and line congestion. It will, but it’s not at all clear to what extent it will do this or to what extent this is needed.

One reason for this is that, because of our privatised railways, the data you’d need to draw firm conclusions – about numbers of passengers on specific trains and where and when they board and alight – is owned by train operating companies and not released publicly. To get round this problem during our research, we conducted an informal census of passengers getting off at evening peak time on London to Birmingham trains in Milton Keynes. We found that around two-thirds of passengers leave these trains at Milton Keynes. 

Even if every single passenger that doesn’t alight at Milton Keynes on peak time trains out of Euston is going to Birmingham or beyond, does this relatively modest thinning out of peak time west coast trains really merit spending more than £100bn and building thousands of miles of high-speed line? Probably not, especially given that trains are only overcrowded at peak times, and that similar overcrowding happens on other lines into London and around other big cities, most of which HS2 will do nothing whatsoever to address.


HS2 has also been billed as a project that will help ‘level up’ areas of the UK outside the south-east, bringing much needed jobs and growth to the north and midlands. But London’s inexorable pull and economic might means that starting the line in the capital skews the possibility of this happening. In fact, according to HS2 Ltd’s own economic appraisal – buried in an appendix on page 75 – 40 per cent of the benefits of HS2 will flow to London, compared to 18 per cent to the north-west, 12 per cent in the West Midlands, and 10 per cent to Yorkshire and Humber.

Investment in the UK’s railways – and in its bus network – is very sorely needed. For instance, none of the three critical east-west lines across the Pennines is currently electrified, which is not only essential to make transport low carbon, but also to speed up services and make them more efficient.

There are massive problems almost everywhere on the rail network and big, public-led investment is certainly going to be needed. But taxpayers should demand value for money, which HS2 does not deliver. The best solution would be to share out the investment capital of HS2 between the regions of England, and Wales and Scotland. Governments local and national should spend the money on solving the transport problems that affect the most people, which is generally the daily commute.

HS2 is a product of decision-making that begins and ends in London. It’s no surprise that with this approach we’ve ended up with a railway project that looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Andrew Pendleton is director of policy and advocacy at the New Economics Foundation.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.