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HS2’s completion is as likely as King Harry’s coronation

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

Seven years ago, when HS2 was still officially costed at £33 billion, I wrote that I was looking forward to using my pensioner’s rail pass on it ‘early in the reign of hugely popular, three-times-married King Harry, in whose favour his elder brother will abdicate after his 50th birthday’. Now HS2’s upper cost estimate has reached £106 billionand the northern spur of the track may not reach Leeds until 2040, when my pass and I will surely have expired. There’s still a possibility all this will happen — high-speed rail and Harry’s coronation, that is — but both look less likely by the day. And after a decade of defending HS2 against all-comers, I fear I must review my position.

On the one hand, I believe, as Boris apparently does, in the economic and morale-boosting value of grands projets. On the other, I’m influenced by failure at Crossrail and stalemate at Heathrow into thinking that we’ve become hopelessly incompetent at making them happen — on budget, on deadline, or at all. And I observe how many of my fellow passengers now say they’d like the on-train broadband to be faster, but not the train itself; that what they really want are more departures, more comfort and better punctuality across their regions, rather than this sometime-never north-south showpiece.

Time, money and technology have overtaken the HS2 concept, so that the question now is not whether it should be scrapped, but how. Ministers should come up with a bold spending list for the original £33 billion to give voters what they actually want — and imaginative new outcomes for the £8 billion already spent on sites and tunnels. Affordable housing, entrepreneur hubs, underground mushroom farms, perhaps even a Sussex Royal theme park: we could celebrate them all as the HS2 dividend.

Farming isn’t park-keeping

‘You’d think we were park keepers, not vital food producers’ was the reaction of my Yorkshire farming neighbour to first reports of the new Agriculture Bill, which sets out the government’s approach to farm subsidies after the sector is liberated from the EU Common Agricultural Policy. The good thing is that there will be no more direct payments per hectare, which crudely favoured the biggest landowners. What’s disconcerting for the half-million people whose livelihoods derive from farm businesses is the new principal of ‘public money for public goods’ — the latter, we’re told, including ‘better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding’.

In BBC coverage of the bill — scripted with the same notorious urban bias shown by Evan Davis on the PM programme last year, when he was forced to backtrack on remarks about ill-treatment of farm animals — there was remarkably little reference to food production and a bizarre suggestion that farmers are currently busy destroying the very soil on which they depend. At least Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers’s press release was better balanced, including references to ‘championing British food’, ‘boosting productivity’ and ‘investing in the foundations of food production, such as clean air, soils and water, [to] safeguard our food security’.

But what farmers fear is that new measures will actually damage productivity, by tightening restrictions on the use of fertilisers and pesticides with minimal environmental side effects that offer a reliable route to higher yields per hectare; that consumer demand will overrule calls to ban imported food that is not produced to anything like our own gold standards; and that ‘increased access’ means more townies rambling through crop fields.

According to my man on his big tractor–sprayer: ‘After a disastrous autumn for wheat, barley, oilseed rape, potatoes, carrots and sugar beet, it remains to be seen where the supply shortfall will come from: Russia probably, despite their use of banned production techniques such as neonics [bee-harming pesticides]. No wonder we’re up in arms about the new bill.’

Down the mine

Speaking of fertilisers and Yorkshire neighbours, I commiserate with thousands of them who bought shares in Sirius Minerals, the developer of a polyhalite potash mine near Whitby that has been rescued by the mining giant Anglo American — with a £405 million cash bid at 5.5p per share, compared with a market peak of 45p in August 2016. This was always a high-risk bet in a market in which long-term demand for polyhalite fertiliser is uncertain: hindsight will say its prospects were overhyped by Sirius’s promoters. But they were also skilful in winning local support for a project that has created 1,200 jobs. Anglo American — market value £30 billion — can afford to wait years before this relatively small investment generates a return; if and when it does, I hope a royalty scheme can be devised to compensate the small investors who pushed the project across the starting line.

Lords in York

I’m excited by Downing Street’s idea of moving the House of Lords to York — which is, after all, only 111 minutes from King’s Cross with no need for a budget-busting high-speed upgrade. But I would not build the new chamber (bound to cost far more than any first estimate) on the dismal disused railway land behind the station, as reports have suggested. Instead, why not ‘repurpose’ existing buildings in the vicinity? Their lordships might enjoy being shunted into one of the capacious sheds of the National Railway Museum. Better still, a short stroll into town would take them to the riverside gardens in which the Yorkshire Museum adjoins King’s Manor, the Tudor quadrangle (now an outpost of York University) that was once the seat of the Council of the North. Wouldn’t that be a dignified solution, assuming current occupants can be relocated? There’s even a rather good restaurant already on site: the Star Inn the City. Bring on the compulsory purchase orders.

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