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Today the right-wing press and a few other media outlets are falling over themselves to report of the latest right-wing nonsense about HS2 from the secretive political lobbyists at ‘Policy Exchange’.

But who are ‘policy exchange’? none of the media bothers to ask.

Like other right-wing lobbyists, PE claim to be an educational charity. They bill themselves as “the UK’s most influential think tank”, an appellation awarded to them by the right-wing newspapers who lap up whatever they report. Yep, that’s the reason they’re ‘influential’. Their friends in the media push their agenda and the organistion has a revolving door with Tory Governments, with many of its members having been part of Tory administrations at advisory or Ministerial level!

How you can be an educational charity when it’s plain to anyone who does the slightest research that they’re actually political lobbyists is a sad indictment of the laws around charities and political lobbying. Sadly, the Charity Commission is both weak and feeble when it comes to allowing overtly political lobby groups to get away with claiming charitable status and availing themselves of the tax breaks that bestows. PE is also the opaquest of all the ‘think-tanks’ when it comes to revealing who funds it. You can read more about that here on the ‘Teacher Toolkit’ website.

PE was set up in 2002 by prominent Tories including Nicholeas Boles as its first Director. Micheal Gove as Chairman and also Francis Maude. There’s a long list of familiar names associated with the right-wing and PE, including one who wrote the latest hatchet job on HS2. Step forward, Andrew ‘transcription error’ Gilligan! Former advisor to Boris Johnson (both when he was Mayor of London and Prime Minister). Gilligan’s long had antipathy towards HS2, so his fingerprints being on this report ‘HS2: The kindest cut of all’ are hardly a surprise.

So, what does Gilligan claim? Nothing new at all, so no change there then! In fact, the report is just the usual rehash of old claims about HS2 the libertarian right have been bandying around for years. Gilligan has a long history of rehashing knocking copy about HS2, as I’ve blogged about in the past.

“By cancelling all sections of HS2 where main construction has not yet started, we can save around £3bn a year by 2027/8, and £44bn or more in total.”

And the evidence for this is? There’s none, apart from a few back of a fag-packet calculations and assumptions, each one is caveated with the phrase “likely to be an underestimate“. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? How is this meant to ‘fill’ a supposed black hole in the Government’s current budget? It can’t – obviously, this is pure spin on the part of the media who’re reporting on this. Not only would it not fill any holes in Government coffers, but Gilligan’s suggestion also to stop work at Euston would actually COST money as contracts would be cancelled and compensation paid and workers (who’re currently paying tax) would be laid off.

Whilst admitting it’s not possible to scrap phase 1 of HS2 are construction is already well underway and the costs and penalties would be astronomical he does suggest scrapping the line from Old Oak Common into Euston. What Gilligan completely ignores is the fact Old Oak Common can’t be used as a replacement for Euston station as it’s far, far too small and would hamstring any possibility of running a full service on HS2, thus rendering the project pointless. This is classic penny-pinching and either not understanding (or deliberately ignoring) why a 10-platform station at Euston is being built in the first place. Gilligan claims people can change onto the Elizabeth line and use that to get to Central London instead. In that he contradicts himself as earlier in the report he claims that to cope with the extra passenger numbers HS2 would bring to Euston we’d need Crossrail 2’s capacity. Yet Crossrail 1 (which wasn’t designed to cope with HS2 passengers) can somehow fit everyone on regardless! But then, consistency has never been Gilligan’s forte. Gilligan grudgingly admits that “Old Oak will, admittedly, be less convenient than Euston for passengers seeking to continue their journeys by taxi, car or foot, or going to the Eurostar terminal”. But he completely ignores another dimension and reason Euston was chosen as the HS2 terminus. It not only has East-West connectivity, but it also has something Old Oak doesn’t have – North-South connectivity, Euston serves the whole of London in a way Old Oak never could – even if it had the platform capacity! That a former transport advisor to the Mayor of London doesn’t understand this (or more likely, choses to ignore because it doesn’t fit his narrative) tells you a lot about Gilligan.

Building HS2 at Euston in October 2021. Gilligan completely ignores the reasons Euston was chosen as the terminus (connectivity) and the fact the railway systems are designed and developed, it’s only the oversite development where plans are in a state of flux.

We see other bald assertions such as “HS2’s real benefit-cost ratio may be somewhere between 0.4 and 0.7 – even at the official price” (note the word ‘may’ doing some very heavy lifting there’s no evidence for this claim is offered at all). Gilligan often quotes the BCR as being lower than 1, occasionally he admits this excludes the wider economic impacts (WEIs) but completely ignores the fact the WEI’s are woefully underestimated because they don’t include real environmental impacts such as tackling Climate Change. Transport is the biggest single emitter of carbon in the UK, but Gilligan hardly even mentions the environment in his ‘report’ except when he makes this evidence free assertion “Per pound spent, almost literally any other public transport project imaginable could achieve greater modal shift and CO2 reduction than HS2; that it takes vast sums away from such projects is another of its environmental harms”. Yet again we see the fabrication that HS2 is taking money “away” from other things. The truth? Cancelling HS2 wouldn’t release any money for anything else: the money just doesn’t exist until the government issues the bonds for it. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that (just as they did with HS1) the government can make money from selling the operating concession, which you can’t do if you don’t build it, or only build a rump of HS2 that makes the whole project pointless (which is what Gilligan wants).

Gilligan makes much play about the conservative %’s the Government use for modal shift from other modes of transport to HS2. As usual, these percentages have no context, saying what they’re percentages of. 3% of 100 is tiny, 3% of (say) 100 million is a very different proposition. Plus, what are the carbon savings by moving from high carbon travel (domestic air) to high-speed rail? Gilligan ignores that as it’s inconvenient. It’s also worth noting that whilst Gillian rubbishes any official figures he doesn’t like, the takes the governments modal shift numbers as holy writ, yet the Government’s forecast method is known to be weak. It specifically excludes any factors that favour rail over car or air. Plus, mainland Europe high-speed rail has much higher from-air percentage than the UK Governments figures All the UK modal shift claims are ridiculously low compared to what has actually happened with high-speed rail elsewhere – for which empirical evidence exists.

Reading the report it’s clear that Gilligan’s ignored the most important reasons for building HS2 (rail capacity and the environment) in order to focus solely on what always drives these libertarians. Money and ideology. He offers no alternatives to HS2 because that would mean admitting the central reasons for building it. Instead, he dismisses it purely on the grounds of cost with the spurious arguments that we ‘can’t afford’ HS2 and that the money can be used to fill holes elsewhere – even though that money doesn’t actually exist until it’s borrowed. There isn’t and never has been a big pot of money sat in the Treasury labelled ‘for HS2’ just waiting to be rebadged and spent on other things.

No doubt the usual suspects will fawn over Gilligan and his recycled report, despite it being the usual rehash he’s made a career out of. Will it stop HS2? Of course not. He never has. Because even this Government is starting to realise that it’s these ‘think-tanks’ and their loony libertarian thinking that doomed Truss and got the Tories into the mess they’re in now. If a ‘black hole’ does exist, it’s because of the ‘think tanks’ that Truss listened to! Cancelling HS2 would add another nail in the coffin of their reputation of economic competence and leave the UK looking even more like a laughing stock, unable to build infrastructure because the swivel-eyed loons on the right want small government (and tax cuts).

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