A constituent wrote to complain that he couldn’t find my blog on HS2. That’s because I’ve never written one…yet.
The reality is that most MPs are generalists. Of course, some bring particular, knowledge, expertise and experience from a profession or previous walk of life that they’ve been involved in. Others will master a brief and become expert in an aspect of policy in which they’re particularly interested, or if they’ve been appointed to a specific bill’s standing committee or elected to serve on a select committee.
Not many of us are polymaths, so we are reliant on advice of experts and to temper that advice with our own prejudices and the weight of opinion of constituents, and most important of all, participating in the debate in Parliament -which is, after all, what we were elected to do.
I’ve always had a healthy scepticism for large public sector infrastructure projects. The great age of the railway, though enabled by parliamentary legislation, was financed by private enterprise which carried both the risks and the rewards.
Nevertheless, HS2 with its huge implications for taxpayers, was given thorough parliamentary scrutiny. The Act that enabled it broke precedent by spanning two different parliaments (the members of the special standing committee, to ensure continuity, had to be from ‘safe’ seats which were unlikely to change hands in the election dividing the parliaments).
The Bill was subject to the hybrid procedure because it disproportionately affected so many different private interests. That procedure places a very significant additional burden on the MPs sitting on the committee, giving them a quasi-judicial role. Various interest groups, represented by parliamentary counsel (specialist barristers) present evidence from witnesses and cross examine the witnesses of other interest groups. The MPs sit as both judge and jury, they can intervene to cross-examine witnesses themselves, as a trial judge might.
The snag is that, like a juror, an MP nominated to such a committee has to present for every session of what, in the case of HS2, was a marathon.
Though I had my doubts, I was never a partisan. I was prepared to accept the judgement of the standing committee that had examined all the evidence in such detail. Those MPs who were most vehement in their opposition clearly had a particular axe to grind: they were disproportionately those colleagues whose constituencies in the Chilterns, and elsewhere, were going to be dug up.
I was to some extent reassured by the pedigree of the protagonists. Philip Hammond, formerly the MP for Runnymede and Weighbridge, was the Secretary of State for Transport who gave the green light to the project, he also became one of our most conservative and parsimonious of chancellors of the Exchequer.
I always thought that halving journey times was a complete red herring. The case was always, in my estimate, built on the huge shortage of rail capacity on the routes north of London, where no new railway had been built for over 100 years. The question was one of ‘if we are going to build the new rail capacity that is needed, would we build an ‘old one’ or one using the latest cutting-edge technology?
We went for the latest technology, and that is largely responsible for the exponential rise in costs.
We have a duty to review the decisions we made in the light of the detrimental impact that these costs have on other important national priorities. It is always difficult to admit a mistake, particularly such a costly one, but it may be better than compounding the mistake by ploughing on.
I will await the outcome of the PM’s review before deliberating further.