With the Budget out of the way, attention will start turning towards the local and European elections on 22 May. Political parties will be looking to define clear red lines and seek policy advantage, yet with Parliament sitting for only nine days, the month of April may feel devoid of major political activity.
One thing we do anticipate before the end of the month is the second reading of the High Speed Rail Bill. This will be the last opportunity MPs have to debate the principles of the London to Birmingham route before the bill is committed to Select Committee stage. The Select Committee stage could take two to three years as representations made by petitioners are heard.
The Crossrail Bill Select Committee stage alone took 22 months, sat for 84 days of public meetings and heard from 205 petitioners. So while the Government is anxious to get the project moving, the High Speed Rail Bill will not receive royal assent before the election.
For Labour, the second reading debate presents an opportunity to gain credit for reining in the costs of the project while ensuring that HS2’s connectivity to the existing transport network in the North is maximised.
Though Labour has previously appeared lukewarm on HS2, following the report of HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins, shadow secretary of state for transport Mary Creagh announced that her party would support the High Speed Rail Bill at second reading. Labour also voiced positive support for Lord Deighton’s HS2: Get Ready report, which makes recommendations on how to maximise HS2’s ability to generate local economic growth.
Mixed support for the high speed line in the North and Midlands has placed Labour in an awkward position. While business and council leaders in much of the region see HS2 as a unique opportunity for regeneration, YouGov polling suggests that more than 50 per cent of voters in the North and Midlands are opposed to it. Likewise, support is thinner east of the Pennines, with Wakefield Council – Ed Balls’ and Creagh’s local patch – heavily opposed.
Therefore, Labour’s challenge at the second reading will be to satisfy those in its strongholds who want high speed rail, while demonstrating the power to control the project’s costs.
The HS2 project seems to be gathering steam. There is a commitment to speed up its delivery, and if Lord Deighton’s recommendations are agreed to, local authorities will lead on individual HS2 growth strategies for each station along the route with work delivered by locally led delivery bodies; a new minister with responsibility for HS2-related growth will be appointed; and a HS2 skills college will be established.
What was once a dubious project set up in response to political pressure on a third runway at Heathrow is becoming a vital project for economic growth and regeneration. HS2 can do for future generations what the Victorian railways did previously. This month we will see much needed political consensus behind this flagship programme.
John Lehal is managing director of Insight Public Affairs