HS2; A rail too far?

Regional inequality is one of the perennial political questions. It is up there with tax avoidance as something where everyone agrees that something must change, but no one can quite agree what. A classic example is the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, a nebulous term giving the highly misleading impression that something was happening when in reality it was invented purely to try and woo Northern voters

One of the few initiatives to try and deliver some actual change is HS2. This theoretically has the potential to increase the mobility of the workforce causing all manner of positive spill-over effects leading to a new age of economic growth up and down the country.

Already, however, the programme has run into all the cliché problems of a large government-spending project: late[1], both needlessly expensive compared to similar tracks around the world[2] and over-budget[3], and a massive pain in the proverbial for anyone vaguely near it (which is everyone).

To some extent, I can live with all of this.  Good things are often expensive and complex and just because something is inconvenient does not mean that we should not do it, provided it adds real value, both to the country and the communities that it services. The trouble is, it doesn’t, at all.

Now, I am not doubting that we do need to improve our current ageing transport network. But why on earth are we investing in technology that the rest of the world has had for decades? Surely if the point is to drive growth and innovation we should be investing in the next generation of technology. This better late than never mindset is damaging for this country. Japan is making massive leaps forward in the development of mag-lev technology, and there is no reason why we can’t too. This would give us a real competitive advantage over the world, something especially important as we move into the forthcoming BREXIT age.

There is also another, more fundamental criticism of the project.  If the design is to promote growth in the regions, why does the line go to London? Surely if we want to promote growth in the north we should focus on local infrastructure improvements, enabling local businesses to thrive.  The London centric plan gives the impression that growth only comes from the capital and that this must be where the growth takes place. Not only is that patronising in the extreme to everyone not in London, but it also risks a widening of regional inequality.  Cutting the time to get to London will simply lead to a further brain drain from the regions making it increasingly hard for novel, market-beating companies to be born. All it will achieve is to extend the London commuter belt, driving up house prices and placing pressure on local infrastructure.

A far better solution is to focus on connecting the great northern and midlands cities. There is no reason that Manchester or Newcastle cannot be the drivers of growth in the UK and we must encourage that, not drain them of their brightest talent.

[1] Ames, C. (2016) ‘HS2 running behind schedule and over budget, NAO warns’ Accessed: 16 December 2017. Available at: https://www.transport-network.co.uk/HS2-running-behind-schedule-and-over-budget-NAO-warns/13003

[2] Williams M. (2017)  ‘FactCheck Q&A: How does HS2 compare to other bullet trains?’ Accessed: 16 December 2017. Available at: https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-qa-how-does-hs2-compare-to-other-bullet-trains

[3] Handley, L. (2017) ‘what is HS2 and how much will it cost?’ Accessed: 18 December 2017 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/apr/28/what-is-hs2-and-how-much-will-it-cost

Article by Alex Jackson

Photograph – The Telegraph

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