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23.09.13

No ‘blank cheque’ for HS2 warns Labour in big policy shift

Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls has given the strongest signal yet that the party might drop its backing for HS2.

The party says it is not yet planning to come out against the project, which got off the ground largely thanks to the efforts of its former transport secretary, Lord Adonis.

But it suggests that the project will be reviewed if the party gets into power in 2015, saying the whole thing has been “mismanaged” and that the billions earmarked for the project could be better spent elsewhere.

Balls told Labour’s conference in Brighton: “Under this government the High Speed 2 project has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50bn. David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project – no matter how much the costs spiral up and up. They seem willing to put their own pride and vanity above best value for money for the taxpayer.

“Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. So let me be clear, in tough times – when there is less money around and a big deficit to get down – there will be no blank cheque from me as a Labour chancellor for this project or for any project.

“Because the question is - not just whether a new high-speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country. In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.”

The £50bn is the upper end of the HS2 budget, and includes £16.1bn of contingency.

Labour’s Transport team retweeted the BBC’s Richard Westcott, who called it a “BIG shift in position”.

Although shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said earlier this month: “British businesses are right to back the building of a new north-south rail line to deliver the major increase in capacity needed on Britain’s rail network in the years to come. Far too many people have to stand on their way to and from work, often in cramped conditions, despite paying thousands of pounds for their season ticket. The only credible way to free up space for more commuter services is if we shift the growth in long distance journeys onto a new high speed line. This will also enable us to make greater progress in shifting freight from road to rail, reducing congestion and the emissions that contribute to climate change.

“David Cameron has disastrously failed to provide the leadership necessary to build support and make progress on actually delivering the vital new north-south rail line. As a result of three years of dither and delay, there is no prospect of securing parliamentary approval for the first phase of the scheme before the next election. The Government must now redouble their efforts to make the new north-south rail line a reality and ensure it remains on budget and on track.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

(Photo showing Ed Balls addressing the Labour conference: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

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