The High Speed Route To A Housing Shortage

The government’s rethink on HS2, the proposed high speed London-to-Birmingham rail link, could spell bad news for those anticipating more new homes will be built in the future.

The latest delay over HS2 - with the government now looking at a possible £500m tunnel as part of the project (here) - boils down to a desire to avoid a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers. Many of them have constituencies in the Chilterns, through which HS2 would run.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England has quickly seen through this cynical move, noting the £500m would be found by cutting back on environmental work on a different part of the route - at a guess, that may be well away from vociferous Conservative constituencies.

Such is the stuff of politics. Labour has done plenty of this sort of thing in the past, most notably funding large numbers of new schools in its own constituencies in the final four years of its administration. But the ominous effect of this latest HS2 move is that it could give a green light to opponents of new housing developments, too.

Many of the most desirable and largest locations for building new homes are in areas where demand is highest - south east England in particular, where a significant majority of councils and MPs are Conservatives. If they are willing to think short-term about Britain’s transport needs, and sacrifice a modern ‘green’ national rail service in order to secure their next constituency win in 2015, will they think short-term about housing needs too?

In other words, might they threaten a rebellion if their constituencies are ‘forced’ to take new homes just as they threaten a rebellion over HS2? And having got their way once, they may well expect to succeed again.

This only serves to make the tightrope being walked by the government both tauter and higher than before: on the one hand the coalition recognises that Britain needs more homes and more relaxed planning regulations, while on the other hand it has to work hard to keep its two-party administration in one piece, and keep backbench MPs happy.

As we pass the mid-point of this parliament in 2012, so the power of backbench MPs wishing to assert their independence may be felt increasingly often - and on the evidence of HS2, any opposition to new homes may make the government roll over.

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