How not to argue for HS2

The Chairman of the Midlands Industrial Council, one Johnny Leavesley, tries to present a case for HS2. And does a piss-poor effort. He starts off acknowledging that the case against seems pretty good, admitting, for example, that “The sums involved are vast”. So what’s he got in favour?

Our economy needs rebalancing. It is a great legacy of David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s that they recognised this and took the first steps to sparking economic regeneration in the regions. HS2 is a catalyst and long-term support for the policies stemming from that intent. There have been decades of underinvestment in the North and Midlands, especially in public transport.

It may be true that the economy needs ‘rebalancing’, but where’s the argument that building a hugely expensive train to London that will take decades to build is the way to make up for the shortfall in funding to the North and the Midlands? Have the people of the North and Midlands been asked? There’s no argument for this at all, and all Leavesley can do is admit “I only wish the building of HS2 started at the other end”.

There are undeniable construction advantages.

What’s a ‘construction advantage’? I can understand what that would be if you compared two projects, and one was said to have a ‘construction advantage’, but how does it apply to one project? I think he means that there are economic advantages involved with the construction side of things, these being:

An estimated 100,000 new jobs will be created, most of them skilled.

It’s rather astonishing to see this sort of arguing from a supposed expert. The jobs cost money to create. Tens of billions, in this case. The government can always create jobs by spending a lot of money, but as we know the inefficiency of governmental spending means that almost always more jobs are lost than created. You can’t divert £65+ billion pounds to one part of economy and only talk about the jobs created in the sector where you funneled that money, and ignore the actual and potential jobs that were lost in the rest of the economy after £65+ billion was sucked out.

All the economic activity generated will be virtuous in myriad ways

This has to take the cake for the most vacuous justification for a massive government spending spree I’ve ever seen. ‘Virtuous in myriad ways’.

not least in creating profit and, thereby, increasing tax revenue from a growing economy.

What about all the profit that would have been created by letting people keep more of their own money? Besides, this is basically saying “We spent £65 billion of taxpayer’s money, but hey, we’re getting a bit of tax back as a result. Totally worth it”.

Peak periods are far too congested. Most of us in these crowded islands live in a broad central belt flowing from London to Leeds. Most journeys shunt through there as well. A new railway will not only create capacity in itself but free space on existing lines, especially the West Coast Main Line, reducing passenger and freight costs.

Or you could invest in those lines directly, making enormous savings. Or build some more roads. Or airports. Or let a private company build the railway, and then we can find out the real cost of it, and they can decide whether it’s worth it — as Leavesely himself admits:

To declare an interest, HS2 will go through a field and a derelict barn of mine that I had plans for. There will be compensation, but it won’t be close to what I would otherwise have generated.

If a private company had to genuinely buy the land for the railway instead of having the government steal it for them, they might discover that commuters, seeing how enormously expensive the tickets will be in that scenario, decide that they don’t really value getting to and from London a few minutes faster that much after all.

Connectivity, meanwhile, is an overwhelming agent for economic good.

A extremely general statement. Doesn’t it depend on what’s being connected? And how much it costs to do the connecting? And how much of an improvement it is on what currently exists?

Technocrats speak

Technocrats? My word. How can we argue with ‘technocrats’?

Technocrats speak of its “agglomeration impact”, but you can think of it as something that stimulates cross-regional employment opportunities and foreign investment.

Personally I’m starting to desire something a little more detailed, and not so much of the glossy brochure talk.

Other advantages will arise from regeneration close to stations

Where’s the evidence that this is worth it for people who don’t live close to stations?

Also, around my way the people who are going to be close to the stations don’t seem very happy about it at all. They see it as a curse on them. Perhaps Johnny should go have a talk to them to convince them they’re wrong.

increased land values

For some. And why is it a good thing for everyone else if house prices go up?

shorter and more reliable journeys

A bit shorter. And the reliability claim rather requires us waiting and seeing, doesn’t it?

a more even geographic spread of wealth and economic activity.

Where’s the evidence that this will happen? This article is full of assertions rather than arguments.

In fact, our ambition should be to build more High Speed railways in other regions, routing not just to London but between our other great cities.

How about we start with them first, and see how they go?

We have come so far in the planning that it would be a national embarrassment to cancel HS2 now. There have been enough of those. It would be a Pyrrhic victory for saving money.

Johnny seems to have never heard of the sunk cost fallacy.

Our continued national prosperity requires imaginative and bold investments.

Again, a dubious claim in need of its own argument, rather than an argument for HS2.

(A ladder to the moon is a bold and imaginative investment, but hardly one that will contribute to national prosperity. Spending proposals need to be assessed on their own merits, not justified under some sweeping generalisation.)

Jeremy Hunt has come out in support of HS2 and I admire him for that.

I think we can safely conclude this article is a failure.

Update: We can also draw a similar conclusion about William Hague’s latest article, as he concludes:

Here again, I am logically and inescapably drawn to vote for Jeremy Hunt.

(The mere existence of a William Hague column suggests Hague is owed some favours, as I can’t imagine who would be interested in his opinion on anything any more.)

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3 thoughts on “How not to argue for HS2

  1. Basically, public indifference towards politics has led to us having imbeciles running the country. The thing about democracy is that, if enough people catch on, the idiots can be sent packing, without us having a civil war.

  2. “An estimated 100,000 new jobs will be created, most of them skilled.”

    There’s your broken window fallacy, right there.

    Bastiat, eat your heart out – you wasted your time.

  3. “(A ladder to the moon is a bold and imaginative investment, but hardly one that will contribute to national prosperity. Spending proposals need to be assessed on their own merits, not justified under some sweeping generalisation.)”
    Don’t give them ideas

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