HS2 and the constitutional issues of infrastructure

By: Laura Gherman

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) is the Government’s centre of expertise, infrastructure and major projects. It gave HS2 an ‘unachievable’ rating in its latest Annual Report, where it noted huge issues around budget, schedule, project definition and quality – none of which seem manageable or have a clear solution. In the report, phase 2a of the project (West Midlands to Crewe, i.e. the Manchester leg) was given a ‘red’ rating, the primary source of the Government watchdog’s overall opinion that HS2 was unachievable. 

This report was published in July 2023, two months before the Government’s announcement that it would be scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the high-speed railway. This was announced at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester after days of speculation. More specifically, the project is being scaled back due to rising costs. It was a move which received a predictably mixed reception. 

But governments are generally unlikely to finance such projects which will fail to meet their long-term maintenance and operation costs. Although critical of Sunak’s decision to scrap the Manchester leg, former Prime Minister David Cameron (whose Government drew up these plans) had little to say about why this leg of HS2 proved so costly. This raises questions about whether the 2a phase of HS2 was even feasible when these plans were first drawn-up by the Government in 2012. 

11 years later, we are still here arguing about HS2, but we are also posed with the reality that infrastructure across the UK requires urgent renewal. Trains remain the biggest problem and as the reality of radical changes in weather and climate becomes more prominent, we should remember that British trains and rail lines are not built to withstand heavy rains, snow, or extreme heat. Indeed, the vast majority of our rail infrastructure across the UK is now old and needs replacing or modernising. 

Keir Starmer, the man very likely to succeed Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister within the next year or so, announced that he cannot ‘commit to reversing Rishi Sunak’s decision’ on scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2. Starmer told ITV news that any projects that the Government has announced will be continued under a Labour Government. 

To have stood in opposition to HS2 or any other major infrastructure project would have been to turn the election in part into a referendum on public support for such projects. Instead, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves announced during her speech at Party Conference that Labour will examine every ongoing major infrastructure project once in government. This would be done by creating a new unit which would be responsible for ensuring projects are delivered on time and on budget, with direct reporting to the Prime Minister and Chancellor.  

Long term infrastructure projects are encouraged and supported by governments because of the positive impact they are likely to have on economic growth, but it follows that they won’t be supported if they are not seen as financially feasible. Since 2013, the IPA’s overall confidence about the delivery of projects has been falling steadily. Alongside the loss of confidence in HS2, Crossrail remains unfeasible in the eyes of the IPA. But despite this, governments may still struggle to terminate or scale back major infrastructure projects if vast sums of money have already been invested in a project. While they might risk throwing good money after bad, any cancelation of major infrastructure projects will have serious economic and sectoral implications. These might include individual businesses who have been involved seeking to recover costs, right up to judicial review. 

Suffice it to say, reversing decisions on major infrastructure projects does not come easy to any government, whether incumbent or new. To give some indication of these issues, we might take the example of tremendous amount by which costs can spiral or be reduced. For instance, the Ministry of Justice probation programme rose in cost dramatically in 2019, from £1.2bn to £8.2bn due to remodelling and likely because of the Government’s aim to deliver 200,000 extra police officers. In the opposite direction, the cost of the PHE Science Hub project fell from £11.6bn to £2.7 bn in 2019 due to recalculations. With the possibility of such drastic changes in practical considerations and political temperament across the life of a large infrastructure project, we are left to consider the constitutional issues at play. 

The reality is that facts can change very quickly when it comes to major infrastructure projects which leaves the government in charge with a difficult decision to make. Recently, in Australia, the new government announced that more than 700 infrastructure projects set up by the former government face possible cancellation following a three-month review. The reason for that was that there was no adequate funding allocated to these projects; a point that is disputed by the former government. Only projects which were announced in the budget have not been impacted by the review.

Whilst this example highlights the need to ensure cross-party support for infrastructure projects and the need to ensure that government departments are kept accountable in the process of making a decision on any large-scale projects, especially when it comes to cost, it also shows a very radical example of bad governance and cross-party work.

Somewhat similarly, and very much on the topic of bad governance, Donald Trump signed an order to dismantle Barack Obama’s climate policies which saw support for the coal industry and had serious implications for the international effort to fight global warming. As one would expect, when Joe Biden came to power, he began dismantling many of Trump’s efforts to reverse this policy.

By contrast, in the UK the Public Administration Committee, after an extensive survey in 2019, emphasised the need to ensure that governments don’t focus on short term projects that can be completed during one election cycle. Instead, Britain requires reforms which would outlast any single parliamentarian. Since 2019, criticism could be levelled at an overly cautious government approach, but it is an approach which has perhaps been dictated by the political instability of the last four years. An instability which was not foreseen by the Committee.

It now seems almost impossible that any of the major infrastructure projects announced in the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto will be delivered under a Conservative Government, and this in turn raises an important question. What would the constitutional implications be if a future Labour government acted in a similar way to Australia were it to find inconsistencies in funding following the review which Reeves has announced? The short answer is that any new government has the mandate to make such a change if it can command the support of Parliament. 

The difficult conclusion to be drawn from this is that while it might be against the national interest, politics can easily interfere with vital infrastructure in the UK. Whether for good or ill, justified by practical considerations or otherwise, under our present system a new parliament (and increasingly a new government) holds the keys to all infrastructure planning. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development itself noted in its ‘Getting Infrastructure Right’ report that infrastructure projects are often vulnerable to political dynamics, and so this is an international issue and not one that applies exclusively to Britain. That said, to prevent future governments amending infrastructure projects by legislation would necessitate interfering with the principles of parliamentary sovereignty. That does not seem likely in the short term.

In fact, I would argue that in the UK at present the levels of scrutiny and transparency we have with the presence of select committees compares favourably with other systems. Governments are always pressed for truth and to ensure that the wellbeing of the country is put above political power struggles. Such committees themselves might provide an example of the surety and cross-party working which will be required in the future for large-scale infrastructure projects to be delivered across successive governments. 

HS2 and many other major infrastructure projects besides highlight the constitutional issues discussed above and emphasise that instability and (incessant) changes in government have a deleterious impact on accountability over long-term infrastructure projects and investments. With a return to a more stable politics, we will likely see an improvement in government’s ability to deliver such projects and investments. Ironically, while Keir Starmer will have to face the headache emerging from this, he might also bear the fruits of projects and investments commissioned by a Conservative government if they can be seen through. Such is the beauty of our political system. 

Laura Gherman.

Laura Gherman is a parliamentary aide to a senior backbench Conservative MP and the Vice-Chair for LGBT+ Conservatives. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.