Labour ready to cancel HS2 'if costs rise'

There should be no blank cheque for the HS2 rail plan, says Ed Balls.

Labour is questioning whether the HS2 rail project is "the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country".

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls told the party conference they still backed the idea of a new north-south rail link, but there could be no blank cheque.

Supporters say the project will provide much needed extra rail capacity.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council criticised his party for raising doubts about its viability, accusing Mr Balls of a "cheap shot".

Sir Richard Leese - head of the Labour council since 1996 - said the high-speed line was "essential" to prevent the North and Midlands "slowly grinding to a halt".

"There are better ways for the shadow chancellor to demonstrate fiscal responsibility than take a cheap shot at HS2," he added.

BBC transport correspondent Richard Westcott said Labour would not commit to cancelling HS2 before the election, but would review it if they won.

He said Labour would look at whether it was the best way to spend £50bn, or whether they should look at other options, like different routes or big improvements to existing lines.

Value for money

Start Quote

There are so many Tory MPs opposed to HS2 that the plans may need Labour's support. After today that cannot be guaranteed. ”

End Quote

Earlier another of Labour's frontbench team, shadow treasury chief secretary Rachel Reeves, said the party would cancel it "if we don't think it's good value for money and costs continue to rise".

The project's first phase would see 225mph trains running on a new line to be built between London and the West Midlands by 2026. A second phase would see the line extended further north, with branches to Leeds and Manchester by 2033.

The estimated cost of the plan has risen in the past few months from £34.2bn to £42.6bn - plus £7.5bn for rolling stock - and some senior Labour figures such as Lord Mandelson and Alistair Darling now oppose the project.

HS2 has had the backing of all three main party leaders since its conception - despite strong opposition among some backbench MPs.

Supporters of HS2 argue that apart from shorter journey times, the main argument in favour of the project is the need to greatly increase passenger capacity.

Analysis

It may not sound dramatic but, believe me, this is a big shift in Labour's stance on this highly controversial project which does still, just about, have cross-party support.

Up until now the party has assured me, and everyone else, that it is committed to building the line, as long as the price doesn't go up any more.

Now Labour's telling me that it will review the project after the general election in 2015, if it gains power. In other words, ministers may not build the line, even if the price stays the same.

Instead, officials will look again at whether we really do need to spend so much money on a brand-new, high spec train line, or whether they could spend less on alternatives.

They wouldn't go into details but that could potentially mean a slower line on a different route, or beefing up the lines already there.

In the past Labour has always said that HS2 was the only way to deal with a looming capacity crunch on our railways, and that no alternatives can generate the step change in capacity needed for the future.

Clearly, that's now changed.

'Mismanaged'

In his conference speech Mr Balls said: "We continue to back the idea of a new north-south rail link."

He went on: "But under this government the HS2 project has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50bn.

"David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project - no matter how much the costs spiral up and up. They seem willing to put their own pride and vanity above best value for money for the taxpayer."

Mr Balls added: "Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. So let me be clear, in tough times - when there is less money around and a big deficit to get down - there will be no blank cheque from me as a Labour chancellor for this project or for any project.

"Because the question is - not just whether a new high-speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country."

The Stop HS2 campaign said Mr Balls was "dead right", adding that it was "only the vanity of politicians which is keeping this white elephant on life support".

But the RMT union said ditching HS2 would set the modernisation of the railways "back a decade".

"Britain is already in the slow lane when it comes to the railways and RMT will fight any plans by Ed Balls and the political class to leave us stuck there," said its general secretary Bob Crow.

'Tight lid'

Start Quote

Britain is already in the slow lane when it comes to the railways”

End Quote Bob Crow RMT union

Construction on the London-West Midlands phase is expected to begin around 2017, once Parliament has approved the necessary powers - probably in 2015.

The onward legs to Manchester and Leeds could start being built in the middle of the next decade, with the line open by 2032-33.

A Department for Transport spokesman said HS2 was right for the future of the country and had the support of civic leaders across the North and Midlands.

"HS2 will free up vital space on our railways for passengers and freight, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and deliver better connections between our towns and cities," a spokesman said.

While a "tight lid" must be kept on costs, the CBI urged politicians to focus on the big picture.

"HS2 will connect eight of our 10 biggest cities, boost regeneration projects across the country for years to come, and will avert a looming capacity crunch on the West Coast Main Line," it said.

Graphic showing the route for the new highs-peed rail network

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  67.  
    11:36: Child abuse inquiry House of Commons Parliament

    Conservative MP Tim Loughton has been pressing the government on delays in finding someone to chair its independent inquiry on child abuse. During questions to Commons Leader William Hague, Mr Loughton, a former children's minister, said there had been no announcement as promised from Home Secretary Theresa May and requested a debate. Mr Hague said Mrs May would be before MPs in the coming weeks and that the government was determined the work of the inquiry would continue while Parliament is dissolved for the general election.

     
  68.  
    11:33: Birmingham schools statement House of Commons Parliament
    Tristram Hunt in the Commons

    Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt says the government "did nothing" in response to warnings emerging from Birmingham before the 'Trojan Horse' story hit the newspapers. Hunt says there is a broader problem for which the coalition is ultimately to blame. "We do hold this government to account for a chaotic and disjointed schools policy which has increased the threat to child safety and attainment. And sadly, the government's response to this has fallen short."

     
  69.  
    PoliticsHome

    tweets: .@NickyMorgan01 says "every school shld be promoting British values, not just as bulwark against extremism but b/c it is right thing to do"

     
  70.  
    Guardian politics
    man shouting

    tweets: Clegg: next Cameron will ask the 'tea lady' to join debates bit.ly/1twXvqS

     
  71.  
    11:23: Birmingham school statement House of Commons Parliament

    Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says she has told Labour-run Birmingham council officials that "reform is too slow" - and threatens to use emergency powers allowing her to intervene if they do not make changes quickly.

     
  72.  
    11:21: Birmingham schools statement House of Commons Parliament
    Nicky Morgan

    Nicky Morgan says progress has been made since concerns about extremism in Birmingham schools emerged. The schools in question are being incorporated into broader networks in Birmingham and teachers are being investigated, the education secretary says. "We have acted swiftly," she adds.

     
  73.  
    11:17: Birmingham schools statement House of Commons Parliament

    Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is on her feet in the Commons, making a statement on Birmingham schools and the so-called Trojan Horse plot. She starts by pledging to address all the concerns which have been raised.

     
  74.  
    11:14: NHS boost 'mainly down to Labour supporters' BBC News Channel
    The Kings Fund's John Appleby

    New figures suggesting satisfaction with the NHS is at a near record high are unlikely to be the result of recent, direct experience of the service. That's according to the Kings Fund Health think-tank. The Fund's John Appleby told the BBC News Channel that the NHS rating among Labour voters was up 11%, while it was flat among Conservative supporters. Professor Appleby thought that suggested it was a vote of "solidarity" and support for the concept of the NHS.

     
  75.  
    11:11: 'Extremism' in Birmingham schools

    In the next few minutes Education Secretary Nicky Morgan will give an update on dealing with alleged extremism in Birmingham schools. Yesterday, Ofsted's chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned that radicals "have gone to ground" but would return in Birmingham schools unless there was extra funding to recruit better teachers.

    In June, Ofsted issued a damning verdict on the running of a number of Birmingham's schools, placing five into special measures. And this month, the Department for Education issued its own review, one of a series of investigations prompted by the so-called "Trojan Horse letter" - now widely believed to be a hoax.

    The anonymous letter, sent to the local council, referred to an alleged plot by hard-line Muslims to seize control of school governing boards in the city.

     
  76.  
    11:08: League tables explained
    girl reading

    The number of state secondary schools in England considered to be underperforming has more than doubled in a year, according to official figures. Wondering what the figures mean? The BBC News website looks at what school performance data is and what it really means.

     
  77.  
    11:08: Angela Eagle v William Hague House of Commons Parliament
    William Hague in the Commons

    William Hague gets laughs of his own as he responds to Angela Eagle in the Commons. He says Baroness Kramer's watch gaffe wasn't the best gift of the week. That honour goes to Ed Miliband, who received "the gift of being defended by the noble lord Lord Kinnock". Hague says this is a "sure sign of impending disaster", to the mirth of Tory backbenchers. "His belief that Labour is pursuing the right election strategy will be of great comfort to all of us."

     
  78.  
    11:07: Michael Gove's watch House of Commons Parliament
    Michael Gove in Downing Street

    Angela Eagle, who has presumably heard it from reliable sources, recounts an unfortunate incident during Cabinet. She says proceedings were interrupted by Michael Gove's smart watch as it played "one of Beyonce's latest hits". Eagle then turns this into a dig at Gove's absence from the Commons chamber. She gets a big laugh as she wraps up by saying dryly: "Any watch which is smart enough to play Beyonce can surely tell him when business questions is."

     
  79.  
    11:05: Angela Eagle v William Hague House of Commons Parliament
    Angela Eagle in the Commons

    A recap of business questions in the Commons. It began with shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle reviewing the week:

    • On plain packaging, she suggests the government's last-gasp U-turn to support the measure occurred because ministers realised the Conservatives' election adviser and lobbyist "Lynton Crosby wasn't looking"
    • On the NHS, Eagle highlights "overstretched hospitals" and says "the Tories' pledge to protect the NHS is now in tatters".
    • On the Lib Dems, Eagle highlights Baroness Kramer's unfortunate gaffe while on a visit to Taipei. "She gave the city's mayor a watch, which is taboo in local culture because it suggests the recipient's time is running out. She should have given it to her party leader."
     
  80.  
    @BBCNormanS Norman Smith, BBC News Assistant Political Editor

    tweets: Ed Miliband says case for Mansion Tax getting "stronger and stronger"

     
  81.  
    11:04: Voter registration
    Voting in the 2010 general election

    Labour has already claimed changes to the way voters get their names on the electoral roll mean a million fewer people are registered for the general election. Now the leader of the party's Local Government Association group has urged parliament to intervene. Cllr Jim McMahon told local government paper the MJ that councils had "been asked to do the impossible by the [Electoral] Commission". And he warned: "Whilst the current political focus is on the level of voter registration amongst students for the General Election in May 2015, the real democratic crisis will come in December 2015 when potentially millions of voters will be removed from the electoral register."

     
  82.  
    11:02: Broadcasters on the TV debates

    The BBC's Director General Tony Hall says: "We would not be fulfilling our obligations of impartiality to the voters of Northern Ireland if we were to invite one of the Northern Ireland parties but not all the others, which also have substantial support in Northern Ireland."

    Both the BBC and UTV plan dedicated debates in Northern Ireland involving all the larger parties there. The broadcasters are also reiterating that the debates will go ahead even if any of the leaders refuse to participate.

     
  83.  
    11:00: Breaking News: TV debates

    The BBC, Sky and ITN confirm they will not be inviting Northern Ireland's DUP Party to take part in the main televised debates ahead of the general election. The broadcasters are proposing three debates - one between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and two adding Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The DUP had demanded to be included, but in a joint statement the broadcasters say allowing only one of the Northern Ireland parties to take part "would be unfair and discriminatory".

     
  84.  
    10:59: Clegg's 'Monster Raving Loony' jibe
    Natalie Bennett, Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood

    On his LBC phone-in earlier, Nick Clegg was less than complimentary about the way his coalition partner David Cameron is approaching the proposed TV debates. Referring to the PM's calls for the Green Party, then the DUP, to be included, Mr Clegg said: "I suspect next week he will be worried about the fate of the Monster Raving Loony Party." Here's the full story of his comments.

     
  85.  
    10:43: Fracking fallout House of Commons Parliament

    Labour is going on the offensive on fracking in the Commons, as Angela Eagle criticises the government for not being open enough about its shale gas policy. Environment secretary Liz Truss holds the line: "Fracking has a huge potential to provide jobs and growth and also lower our energy costs, and that is why it's so important that we proceed with this vital technology," she says. The exchanges follow Lib Dem Tessa Munt's resignation over the issue earlier this week.

     
  86.  
    10:26: Election battlegrounds
    election map

    We may not know who will win the next general election but we do know which parts of the country will determine the fates of the political parties. The killing grounds in any general election can be found among that minority of parliamentary constituencies - marginal seats - with a history of being won or lost by parties. Here is a guide to the political battlegrounds of the 2015 general election.

     
  87.  
    10:05: Schools' record defended BBC News Channel

    Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has defended the government's record on schools. Her comments come as new league tables show a doubling in the number of schools where less than 40% of pupils fail to get five good GCSEs, including maths and English. Speaking on the BBC News Channel, Mrs Morgan said the results reflected changes made to ensure academic standards were as rigorous as possible. More students, she said, were getting the core academic qualifications.

     
  88.  
    10:03: Commons clashes over food poverty House of Commons Parliament

    It's environment, food and rural affairs questions in the Commons, where shadow food minister Huw Irranca-Davies says one million people in Britain are going hungry while relying on food aid. He says the government is taking Britain back to the 1930s in terms of spending and attacks the "staggering complacency" of the coalition. Minister George Eustice, replying, says the government has put 1.7 million people back into work and has taken three million people out of having to pay income tax. He points out Labour's energy policy would have frozen prices which have subsequently fallen.

     
  89.  
    Danny Shaw Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

    tweets: Prison sexual assault data published for first time shows 170 cases in 2013 - highest on record as are violent incidents in yr to Sep 2014

     
  90.  
    09:52: Social capital

    The Office for National Statistics has just released its first ever analysis of 'social capital'. This might sound vague but contains some findings politicians might want to bear in mind as they debate crime, care and charity issues in the election campaign...

    • 65% of people in Britain thought people in their neighbourhood could be trusted
    • 19% of people in the UK reported looking after or giving special help to someone sick, disabled or elderly in 2012/13
    • 19% of people had given unpaid help or worked as a volunteer in a local, national or international organisation or charity in the last 12 months in 2012/13

    The study also found that 49% of people in the UK reported being "very or quite interested in politics" in 2012/13. It's much more interesting in 2014/15, of course.

     
  91.  
    09:43: UKIP defence plans Robin Brant Political Correspondent, BBC News
    Nigel Farage

    The BBC's Robin Brant says UKIP is set to make defence spending a top priority as the party prepares its manifesto. It looks likely that UKIP will be the only Westminster-based party going into the election pledging to spend more on the UK's armed forces. But, as Robin also reveals, there are internal tensions over this issue.

     
  92.  
    09:42: School league tables

    More on the school league table results: This year 330 English secondary schools - up from 154 - failed to get 40% or more of their pupils attaining five good GCSEs, including maths and English. This rise comes after ministers toughened exams and banned re-sits and some vocational qualifications from school performance tables.

    Meanwhile, renowned schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester and St Paul's Boys' - among scores of other top private schools - have ended up bottom of the tables.

    Our online story has a map showing school performance in local areas.

    Map
     
  93.  
    09:41: Clegg on PMQs LBC
    David Cameron in PMQs

    Deputy PM Nick Clegg has spent countless PMQs sat next to David Cameron - and has now admitted his expression of concentration is one of boredom, not thoughtful concentration. He jokingly tells LBC presenter Nick Ferrari that he ought to consider finding other ways to amuse himself in the remaining sessions before the election: a book? Yes, Clegg says, adding "Danny Alexander tells me Candy Crush is a great game. I could help with my children's homework."

    The Lib Dem leader - who his advisers are determined to position as an anti-establishment figure despite five years in government - adds, in serious mode: "I think it has descended into the most facile yah-boo kind of politics. The only kind of people who get excited about it are the people in the Westminster village."

     
  94.  
    @PickardJE Jim Pickard

    tweets: Labour aide re Blairite critics: "Get on and help win the election or you can manoeuvre for personal position and caress your own vanity."

     
  95.  
    09:36: Clegg on the TV debates LBC
    Nick Clegg on LBC

    Mr Clegg shrugs off David Cameron's suggestion that the Lib Dems are troublemaking over the TV debates. The blame game, he says, is becoming "ludicrous". He then outlines a carefully-crafted argument about why only those parties which "run things" should feature - and not parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. "Just imagine what it's going to be like for the viewing public: by the time everyone's done their one-minute introduction the whole nation will have switched over to Coronation Street."

     
  96.  
    09:32: Breaking News

    Some breaking news now as secondary school performance tables for 2013-14 are published for England. There's controversy over this year's set of data, as the number of secondary schools in England deemed to be underperforming has doubled in a year. It follows confusion over the recognition of the International GCSE qualification.

     
  97.  
    Clegg on Katie Price LBC
    Katie Price

    Nick Clegg is refusing to let the controversy over Katie Price's son undermine his support for the universal nature of support for children with disabilities. Some have suggested the model, rather than the taxpayer, should pay for her son Harvey's treatment. But Clegg doesn't think a case like this changes anything.

    "I would be pretty reluctant to say on the facts of this individual case we therefore throw out the idea of universally treating all children with disabilities with the same kind of compassion and support," he says.

     
  98.  
    @LBC LBC Radio

    tweets: Nick Ferrari asks whether the state should be paying for the transfer of Katie Price's disabled son http://l-bc.co/C1egg #CallClegg

    and

    tweets: Clegg says it's down to the local authority to decide that - even if Katie Price has £30m in the bank http://l-bc.co/C1egg #CallClegg

     
  99.  
    09:24: Tory leadership poll

    In a YouGov poll for the Times (pay wall), London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is edging ahead of five other Tory politicians in a poll on whether they would make a good party leader. YouGov polled 1,655 people on January 27 and 28, with respondents rating the politicians as a "Good leader", "Not a good leader", "Unsure" or "Don't know enough about the person". The other "candidates" are George Osborne, Theresa May, Sajid Javid, Jermey Hunt and Liz Truss.

     
  100.  
    @politicshome PoliticsHome blog

    tweets: .@nick_clegg - "I v much hope nurses would not feel in any way discouraged or intimidated from coming forward" to report NHS failings #LBC

     

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