Of the two Tory leadership frontrunners only Jeremy Hunt has committed to deliver HS2. Boris Johnson will most likely carry out a review and has previously been vocal in his opposition.
Some have suggested that infrastructure projects like HS2 should be separated from the uncertainty of party politics. If these decisions were to be made in line with larger strategies drawn up by departments and commissions, they argue, it would be much harder for future Governments to overturn previous commitments.
But this argument often misses the fundamental problem with the HS2 debate: that it has been dominated by senior politicians and business leaders. Consultation with the public and democratic buy-in has been low on the agenda. The problem is not that political uncertainty cuts projects like HS2 off at the root, it’s that the roots to local people and places affected by the scheme have been difficult to put down in the first place.
The future shape of devolution will hinge on whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt is chosen to be the next Prime Minister. Both have expressed support for devolution, and as former Mayor of London, Johnson can probably see the benefits of handing powers to city regions. Of course, a Johnson Prime Ministership is still the most likely outcome of this contest, and without a real clarity of purpose (for which he is continually attacked both inside and outside his Party) the next stage for city region devolution is anyone’s guess.
Either way, the scrapping of HS2 is now a distinct possibility and overturning the project has the potential to unsettle George Osborne’s city region-led devolution consensus. Although many pin the causes of the vote to leave the EU on economic and industrial decline, for which devolution could be a solution, in reality the causes are far more complex. Matthew Goodwin’s work at the University of Kent shows that people voted leave because their interests weren’t represented in Parliament, particularly on immigration. If that’s the case, then ploughing billions into infrastructure projects without engaging with citizens could simply cause more harm. As I’ve written before, devolution on its own can’t right this situation, but the huge change in thinking in Westminster that could – one based on a principle of only making the decisions that only Westminster can make – would necessitate significant devolution of powers to the cities, towns, and villages of England.
The debate over whether HS2 is ‘good or bad’ has led many to overlook the most salient issue, which is that infrastructure projects in the UK are often conceived, planned, and constructed without any meaningful engagement with the public. The reasons given for HS2 have ranged hugely over the past few years, from lower journey times to more capacity, to business growth in the North. In reality, it’s a complex mix of the above and more. But unclear messaging and lack of engagement with those who don’t live in city regions – and don’t necessarily want or need a quicker journey time to London – has arguably been at the root of its undoing. Scrapping HS2 would be near-impossible if citizens, especially across the North, were broadly behind the scheme. As it stands, that’s very much not the case.
Of course, most will argue that it is far too late to change the public mood on HS2. That’s possibly true. But the new unpredictable politics is leaving the centralised model of infrastructure planning in the dust. If Northern and Midlands political leaders want HS2 to go all the way, they’ll have to get public buy-in, and fast.