|Volume 50 Number 6, February 22, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Government Pushes Ahead with HS2:
On February 11, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead for the controversial High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project, designed to strengthen the link from London to the Midlands and the North of England. Yet the government's own official review, authored by former HS2 chair Douglas Oakervee, has stated that the project could cost more than twice its previous budget, set in 2015, and be completed five years late.
The first phase of the project links London to Birmingham. It is now expected that work on the line between Birmingham and Crewe will be rolled into Phase 1 of the project, having been originally planned for Phase 2. Phase 2 links Birmingham with Crewe, Wigan and Manchester on one main branch and with Leeds on another. However, Phase 1 is already lagging; initially being planned to run trains from 2026, the opening date has been pushed back to 2028 at the earliest, and possibly as late as 2031.
The project has been met with opposition from many quarters. Anger has come from people in affected areas, where large amounts of countryside including important hedgerows, trees and grassland are to be ripped up. Communities are being disrupted and even destroyed, as people have been ordered to leave their homes marked for demolition. The serious issue of having a say in matters that affect their lives poses itself very starkly as generations of inhabitants face being dispossessed.
The HS2 project originated over the period of 2009-10, when the global financial crisis was at its height. This was a time when state-organised infrastructure projects were particularly sought after by the financial oligarchy as a way to invest capital with a guaranteed return. However, construction only actually began in 2017, and the project ballooned in cost over those eight years, continuing to rise ever since. In 2015, it was estimated that the cost of HS2 would be £56bn, but the Oakervee review has warned that it could rise to as much as £106bn. This crippling cost is a massive pay-the-rich scheme, funded mainly through value claimed by the state via taxation on the income of the working population.
The inception of the project was also pre-Brexit. It was conceived of at a time when the relations between Britain and the rest of the world, between the nations within Britain and between the regions were different. The aim of the project has to be re-examined in the conditions of the present. These are of unbridled national chauvinism, of "Global Britain", rule through arbitrariness and imposition, and of using Brexit to seize further control over all aspects of life in the interests of the financial oligarchy. Workers have to ask: what is the aim of a project like HS2 under these conditions?
Johnson's approval signals a clear intent to push the project through by the government, even given the scale of opposition, as well as the divisions within the ranks of the ruling circles themselves. Even Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings labelled HS2 a "disaster zone" as recently as last August.
Infrastructure projects such as HS2 are advertised as vital for the economy, vital in themselves and in terms of creating jobs. In the present circumstances, investment in infrastructure may also be presented as a shift away from austerity, getting the economy moving and growing, and so on. But simply providing a connective link does not, in itself, translate into supporting "the economy" and generating growth. How does the issue of connecting London to the regions present itself? Economically, London is principally the financial centre. That other costly and delayed project, Crossrail (the "Elizabeth Line"), for example, is to link the twin financial centres of the City and Canary Wharf to each other and to Heathrow airport, and will even reach as far out as Reading, binding that city virtually within London itself.
In terms of transporting manufactured product for trade, London is not the hub. Most car exports, for example, are carried through other ports such as Southampton. Much product for export that exits through the Channel Tunnel bypasses London.
The question could therefore be raised as to whether it may in fact be more of a political rather than economic project in the current conditions.
First, HS2 is touted to be a project that serves to tie the northern working class to the Conservatives, retaining the vote of the former "red wall". It is intended that HS2 connect with the transpennine Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) line, which is a separate project to connect Liverpool to Leeds. But this mythical Northern Powerhouse remains elusive. In this respect, Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said that the government should prioritise the NPR over the western branch of HS2, which on current projections would not be complete for another 20 or more years.
HS2 is also put forward as a "vanity" project for the Prime Minister. There are two aspects to this. First is Johnson's declaration of mode of rule: his pushing this through against opposition, posing as a so-called man of the people, is not so much about getting the job done as about breaking the taboos. It is deliberately brazen, uncaring about the opposition and disarming the demand for a say. Second, HS2 and other planned projects are said to be part of the "great" and "exciting" ambition of the nation, the announcement of Global Britain in all its glory, to reinforce the message that Johnson really is going to "Make Britain Great Again".
Further, might the aim now be conceived of as giving more power and control to the state? The North of England exists in a semi-colonial relation to the South, a relation which is spontaneously giving rise, in the North especially, to the people's demand that their voices be recognised. The question here is how might this direct connection enable more direct control and influence from the centre to the regions of the North. When seen in the context of the proposed bridge from Scotland to Ireland, this binding role of transport does not look so far-fetched.
In the end, the issue is who decides. It is the workers who demand the decisive say. Modernised communications, transport and industry are certainly required, but is HS2 going to create this? Is it even aimed at creating this? Will riding roughshod over vast tracts of land to connect the big cities non-stop do anything to resolve the contradiction between town and countryside? High-speed links, in themselves, are certainly an advance, but it is precisely the neo-liberal agenda that has been holding them back from being realised in such a way that serves the natural and social environment, ends the semi-colonial nature of the North and the colonial relation between the nations and pays attention to the relations between the peoples of these islands.