By Maximilian Clarke

The high speed rail link connecting London to Birmingham this morning got the go ahead; a decision simultaneously lauded and derided across the country.

So contentious an issue is the High Speed 2 rail link that debate between proponents and opponents of the £32bn scheme have frequently erred from discourse and resorted to name-calling. One advertising campaign famously dug up simplistic class-warfare rhetoric in an attempt to garner support. ‘Their lawns or our jobs’ read the slogan for a pro-HS2 poster in Manchester.

And opponents of the scheme have been no less vociferous: Dr Richard Wellings, Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, concluded following an in-depth report that the scheme was an ‘economically flawed white elephant.’

Following is an overview of the chief arguments for and against the colossal infrastructure project…

Arguments For
However, a large number of business lobbies and politicians, along with Trade Unions, remain supportive of the scheme, welcoming the decision:

John Cridland, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, the UK’s foremost business lobby, commented today that “The Government’s green light for high speed rail is welcome.”

“Without new capacity, by the 2020s the main West coast line would be gummed up, and rail freight would be likely to be squeezed out.

“We are right to plan for the infrastructure which the next generation will need, and the biggest prize will come from phase two — the link with the North. This will help to spread the benefits of future economic growth across the country.”

John Longworth, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce notes that the scheme is not simply about speed, and that its boosted capacity will prevent congestion and help foster investment:

“HS2 is about increasing rail capacity in Britain, not just about speed. Without HS2, which would treble capacity, overcrowding will get worse, fares will rise, and delays will become even more common. Britain cannot continue to 'make do and mend' when it comes to its sub-standard infrastructure. Fundamentally, our global competitiveness is at stake."

Trade unions appear largely supportive of the news, particularly with regards to job creation, though they remain cautious of the damaging effects its construction may have on local communities. Commenting today, Len McCluskey of the Unite union said:

"Unite welcomes the government's go-ahead. This is a crucial infrastructure project that will create jobs and relieve congestion. HS2 will create thousands of construction and engineering jobs and it will create jobs in the rail industry in the long term.

"While we support HS2, the union still has some concerns over the route and the links and the potential impact on local communities, which we hope will be resolved before construction begins."

The Deputy General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Frances O'Grady has also voiced strong support:

“The government's welcome decision to invest in high speed rail will prove vital in getting more passengers and freight onto rail, narrowing the north south divide and speeding our economic recovery.

“But thousands of jobs in rail construction, renewals and maintenance are currently under threat from Sir Roy McNulty's proposals to cut staffing across the rail industry. If ministers are serious about delivering the rail infrastructure of the future, they must defend the jobs of these skilled and experienced workers who will be essential if HS2 is to become a reality.

“With government and cross party support secured, HS2 must be built in a way that maximises jobs and apprenticeships and delivers real benefits to passengers, communities and the environment.”

Arguments Against:
Heading up the debate against the project is the influential libertarian think tank, the Adam Smith Institute. Commenting in reaction to this morning’s decision, Sam Bowman, Head of Research, in a post published today entitled ‘The Disaster that is HS2’, concluded that:

"There are big questions remaining about the viability of HS2, and in all likelihood it will become a major burden on public finances in the years to come.

“Past experience in Britain and elsewhere suggests that governments tend to wildly overestimate the demand for high-speed rail, and it is telling that there are only two high-speed lines in the world that do not rely on a taxpayer subsidy. Britain's past experience with high-speed rail, the line connecting London St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, was a disaster — it sold for less than half of its construction cost and passenger numbers were less than a third of the projected number.

And, slamming the project with unambiguous vigour is Dr. Richard Wellings of the Institute for Economic Affairs, who have labelled the decision ‘a grossly expensive mistake’, and the ‘next government disaster’:

“The government is ploughing ahead with a hugely expensive project whose economic case is flawed, whose time-savings claims are dubious and whose environmental case is highly suspect. After having made such political capital out of opposing a third runway at Heathrow, one can only assume the government is forging ahead in the face of such criticism as a way of saving face.

“This project will do nothing to bridge the North-South divide and will instead burden the ever-hammered taxpayer with the task of funding what is a classic white elephant. The government should make one last effort to reconsider its position before it saddles the nation with a high-speed disaster.”

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