I was never in favour of HS2, but if we are going to build it we might as well get on with it, so, yes, the government is right to order the bulldozers into action in spite of Covid-19 – as long as rules are enforced to ensure physical distancing between construction workers. But if it is safe to start building HS2, why then are so many other building sites closed?
According to HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson: ‘We cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country.’ But what about house-building – isn’t that part of levelling up, too? And what about all those plumbers, electricians, carpenters, kitchen-fitters and so on who have been forced to sit at home idling? Forget levelling up – depriving this large body of workers is going to open up huge divisions in society, especially as self-employed workers have been told there will be no help for them until June, and even then they will be denied help if they have averaged more than £50,000 in profits in recent years.
The government hasn’t banned work on construction sites, but it hasn’t exactly helped them stay open either. Many building firms have been bullied, by Sadiq Khan and his like, into padlocking their gates for the duration of the crisis.
The government has been happy for construction sites to close and for their workers to be dumped on the increasingly expensive furlough scheme – no matter how much it devastates the economy. But then when it comes to HS2, that is treated as a special case. Why? It isn’t hard to imagine what has been running through ministers’ minds. With the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting a whopping £273 billion deficit this year – nearly twice what Gordon Brown left behind in the wake of the 2008/09 crisis – there is going to be huge pressure for spending cuts. One of those obvious cuts would be HS2. But what if you have used the crisis to bulldoze a path through the Chilterns? The project would then have a physical manifestation, making it much harder to cancel. Once you have scraped the topsoil from your area of special interest, there isn’t a lot left for environmentalists to protest about.
It is hard to believe that this isn’t the motivation behind today’s decision: to put HS2 beyond the point of no return, to save it from the inevitable bonfire of public spending to come.