Following George Osborne’s strong support of the proposed high-speed rail project yesterday, PR experts warned the battle over public opinion was in danger of being lost.
Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, the Chancellor said he was ‘passionate’ about the project, which he claimed had ‘a good budget which has a very big contingency’.
Osborne’s defence of HS2 follows concern over spiralling costs and key former supporters such as ex-chancellor Alistair Darling turning their backs on the scheme.
Geoff Beattie, Cohn & Wolfe’s global practice leader, corporate affairs, said Osborne’s reassurances over the budget – which has risen from £34.2 billion to £42.6 billion – ‘were not good enough’.
Pointing to Labour's pledge to cap the budget at £50 billion, he said: ‘Osborne and other backers need to work much harder to convince people that this won’t go over budget. The way to do that is put an absolute cap on it.
'They also need to demonstrate how they will keep costs under control by doing something such as appointing a high-profile auditor.’
Phase one of HS2 would see 225mph trains running on a new line between London and the West Midlands by 2026.
A second phase would extend the line further north to Leeds and Manchester by 2033.
Beattie said that though there was a ‘fantastic case to be made’, those behind HS2 were in danger of losing the argument because they were not convincing the public of its potential benefits.
‘They must paint a bigger picture and show that this is ultimately about the kind of country we want for the future. This is designed to provide economic benefit to the Midlands and North, but we are not hearing the views of those who will be benefitting.’
Nick Barron is executive director, business development at Edelman. He said that Osborne was right to link HS2 with the Olympics during his BBC appearance ‘as a demonstration of what the country is capable of’.
However, he agreed that more had to be done to show what benefit the line would bring to those outside of London.
‘There is a lack of trust in term of what this will deliver in for the North, and there needs to be a serious commitment to proving how this will be of direct value.
‘I think the public debate reflects the fact that this is a huge amount of money for an unproven business case.’