Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister David Cameron’s High Speed 2 rail plan for the U.K. drew further unease over costs from the opposition Labour Party, as a minister pledged the bill for the infrastructure project won’t increase.
The 42.6 billion-pound ($69 billion) budget set in June “hasn’t changed at all and that number includes within it a significant amount of contingency,” Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat in Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition, said on the BBC’s Marr show today. “We have set that budget and we will stick to it.”
The rail line known as HS2, intended initially to run from London to Manchester in the north of England, was proposed by the previous Labour government and then championed by Cameron after he took power in 2010. Since then, a backlash from Conservative lawmakers with constituencies affected and mounting costs have dogged the project, while Cameron suggested last week that it can’t proceed without Labour’s backing.
“We have to keep a strong eye on the costs as well as on the benefits,” Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman said on the same show after Alexander spoke. “This is a massive amount of public money. It’s got to be well spent.”
She echoed comments yesterday on BBC Radio 5 by Ed Balls, who speaks for Labour on Treasury issues. Meanwhile the party’s transport spokeswoman, Mary Creagh, told the Sunday Times that there are “a whole series of questions” hanging over the project, and when asked if Labour might oppose it at the 2015 election, she said she didn’t know.
Lack of Enthusiasm
While the Labour leadership’s enthusiasm for HS2 is lacking, the party is torn on the matter. Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose constituency is in the north of England, told Sky News he strongly supports the project.
“Of course I understand that Ed Balls should worry about the cost,” he said, speaking from Manchester. “HS2 is one way in which we rebalance our economy north and south.”
A poll by the BBC’s Sunday Politics show of more than 20 lawmakers in northeast England found mixed views on the project, with 43 percent in favor and 33 percent against.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, whose members include rail workers, called on political parties to reaffirm their backing and push through with HS2.
“The latest outbreak of political posturing between Labour and the Tories over high speed rail is just another smokescreen designed to allow the politicians to delay investment in Britain’s railways even longer,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
Labour lawmaker Kelvin Hopkins has presented Balls with an alternative plan to reopen a route called the Grand Central Line that was closed in the 1960s, with a cheaper price tag of 6 billion pounds, the Sunday Telegraph reported. The line ran from London to Nottingham, with links to Leeds and Manchester, the Telegraph said.
Alexander, the Treasury minister, said that the government will apply the same techniques and rigor to the project as it did for delivering work for the Olympic Games. He said that the economic case for it remains persuasive.
“HS2 is something which can transform the economic geography of this country,” he said. “When you talk to the civic leaders in Manchester and Birmingham, they will tell you, they see this as a huge boost for their cities.”
--Editors: James Amott, Mike Harrison