The political challenge that will predicate a final decision to go ahead with HS2 is enormous. For a project that has been dividing opinion for many years, today the decision to green light HS2 looks one step closer.
Boris Johnson will be challenging his ministers, officials and advisers to find a way to deliver HS2 within politically acceptable boundaries. The Prime Minister will want to move on from artist’s impressions and snappy rendering to identifying projects that he can deliver before 2025.
Bouncing off a landslide victory just a few weeks ago into the potential cancellation of a project sold by some as securing a game changing plan for the north is a political conundrum. For a new Government, perception really matters – transport advisers are alive to how a decision will retail with voters and will relish the unique challenge that UK rail presents. In my time as a special adviser, I worked with three cabinet ministers with the transport brief over several years on key projects across the United Kingdom. We identified and pursued several rail and road projects across the country that would all improve people’s lives and land politically – faster journey times, scrapping tolls, more frequent services all targeted to get the economy outside of the south east motoring.
A potential leftfield issue for HS2 will be the possible consideration of Air Passenger Duty (APD) changes as a result of the Flybe issues and a Department for Transport review. Should the chancellor agree a plan with his colleagues to make changes to APD in the March budget then it could have a major impact on the rail versus flight debate amongst passenger groups in marginal constituencies. They are a powerful voice. With potential changes mooted by commentators to domestic UK flight APD rates, the costs of equivalent journey by rail and air could change significantly culminating in passengers voting with their feet.
Boris Johnson delegates power but in return wants his ministers to deliver tangible projects. The challenge to solve is does HS2 deliver politically for scores of his MPs looking to get re-elected in 2025? The answer is yes and no.
HS2 can be a catalyst for more investment but overspend and delays are possible. Therefore, MPs should make their case for projects that can be signed off, stay within budget and get delivered – or least have diggers in the ground – ahead of the next General Election. That is easier said than done.
The challenge around “levelling up” is where political ambition meets relatively rigid policy structures that can favour spending on top of spending. A renewed focus on an ‘outside in’ approach to government spending could see investment spread more evenly across the United Kingdom. What that means for HS2 is unclear, but the decision will soon be made. The Hill+Knowlton Strategies Public Affairs team will keep a watching brief. H+K is experienced in the navigation of legislation, regulation and the direction of travel for this new political period. Our global team of experts can tailor a programme of activity designed to support you and your business.