Yesterday the “independent” growth taskforce (hint: it’s anything but independent) urged cities across the UK that they needed to be “HS2 ready”. This announcement by the taskforce was accompanied by a glossy document talking of a “once in a generation chance” and full of soundbites and spin, but not much else. Alas, there was no mention of the soaring bill for the project, the opportunity cost of spending £80 billion on it or the worse service that vast swathes of the country would receive through the existing rail network if HS2 goes ahead. It’s no surprise that HS2’s cheerleaders are trying to generate some good headlines, however, since the project really has failed to stand up to scrutiny after a few days in the media spotlight.
Over the weekend, HS2 Ltd came under renewed scrutiny over its cynical decision to omit negative data from a recent KPMG report that boldly claimed the project would deliver £15 billion worth of benefits to the UK economy. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, we now know that this data - which detailed the areas in the UK that would lose out under HS2, according to that KPMG analysis - was intentionally left out of the final report. While the report’s overall methodology has already been widely questioned, the decision to suppress the parts of it that don’t fit HS2’s own cherry-picked narrative is downright deceitful. It shows the report’s purpose was never a serious attempt to assess the viability of the scheme, but was instead a piece of taxpayer-funded propaganda designed to grab headlines and shore up support for the flagging project.
Sadly this is not the first time that those in charge of HS2 have been found spending taxpayers’ money on PR and spin. HS2 and the Department for Transport have spent nearly £200,000 on a lobbying firm working on the promotion of the line. HS2 Ltd has also spent tens of thousands of pounds on media training and communications advice while the KPMG report itself cost £250,000 of taxpayers’ money. These superficial efforts will not change the fact that HS2 is a white elephant, based on flawed assumptions and dodgy numbers, that will end up costing every family in the UK well over £2,500.
If you are going to spend such a monumental amount of money on one project, it’s vital that you get it right. Using people’s own money trying to convince them HS2 is a wise way to spend their cash won’t make the deep flaws of the project disappear.
In the meantime we wait for another wheel to fall off the case for the high-speed line: the update of HS2’s business case is long overdue, after the current version was shown to be full of ridiculous assumptions (such as the notion that nobody ever does any work on the train) and panned by the likes of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. Will the update provide a more realistic version of the costs and benefits of the line, leading to a rethink? Or will we be treated to more propaganda paid for by, you guessed it, you and me? We will certainly continue to make the case for scrapping the entire project before any more of our money can be squandered.