It is increasingly argued that HS2 will be ‘in the national interest’ because it will have a ‘transformational effect’ on collapsing the economic divide between ‘the north and the south’. This is an astonishing argument. Why would one rail line solve a problem that has not been solved by previous rail lines, motorways, cheap airfares, and a massive amount of regional policy over 60 years? Surely we look for evidence based arguments from government, hard and fast facts, especially when they are proposing to spend £34bn? Yet most of the serious research is clear that such a rail line will bring very little additional economic growth.
But the further question is about what the opportunity cost of spending £34bn on taking HS2 up to Leeds and Manchester may be in terms of money available for other transport investment.
The government have just announced its programme of local major transport schemes that it will invest in up to 2014/15. The 9 schemes that now have their funding approved have had to shave 14% off their costs to DfT and in a new arrangement, the local promoters will now have to absorb all risks – DfT will not pay anymore than has been set out in the final bids. Forty five further schemes will have to compete in a Pool for a share of £630 Million (compare this to the £750 million being spent by the current Parliament just on planning HS2). Around 32 of the 45 schemes are for areas that HS2 will not be near. DfT assumes that the needs of this Pool are more like £945 million (averaging at £21m each) so possibly 15 schemes will fall by the wayside. Twenty three schemes were only allowed into this competitive pool on the basis that they have offered to shave 42% off their costs to DfT so even the schemes that are given the go ahead will be greatly curtailed. No other schemes will be considered between now and 2014/15.
To these can be added the 11 schemes – 9 of which are in areas that will not have a HSR station – on which a decision has been taken that they will not be funded. So that gives us 26 schemes that – despite being needed right now (or else they would not be in these Pools) will not be funded, and the vast majority of them are in regions that will be by-passed by HS2. This doesn’t even include the many local and regional rail schemes needed to address upgrading and capacity issues.
ALL of these urgent transport schemes and many, many more could be fully realised with just a proportion of the £34 Billion that will be invested in one HS2 scheme. Far from addressing the regional divide, HS2 will greatly increase them by investing in a project that will further serve the strongest economies. There are far better ways to serve “the national interest” than one rail link designed to turn Birmingham into an additional ‘London’ airport. Money for infrastructure IS available – it is a political choice that this government is making to spend it on a divisive and socially and economically regressive scheme – favouring the London economy over that of the rest of the UK. Does this feel like ‘addressing regional imbalances’? Does it feel fair?