Will HS2 actually widen the North-South divide?

The information which the government has produced for the public consultation on HS2 provides new evidence on its impact on the North-South divide.

Philip Hammond is still adamant that high speed rail will reshape our economic geography, regenerate our urban centres and help bridge the north-south divide. He claims ‘the first phase (London to Birmingham) alone would support the creation of more than 40,000 jobs’.

When we look at the detail, this is made up as follows:
• 9000 construction (ie temporary) jobs
• 1500 operational jobs of which 340 are in London and 420 in Birmingham
• 30,300 from regeneration around the stations, of which 22,000 in London (Euston and Old Oak Common), and 8,300 in Birmingham (Curzon St and Birmingham Interchange).
So 70% of the ‘permanent’ jobs will be in London. Moreover, as the government admits, many of these will not actually be new jobs, but relocations from elsewhere.

What does this tell us about the impact on the north-south divide?

In the first place, the impact is very marginal indeed. Recent data from Cambridge Econometrics suggests that the north-south divide is currently widening by about 77,000 jobs a year, while the projected new jobs from HS2 are spread over a 12-15 year period. So even if they were all in the Midlands or North, their impact on the divide would be minimal. But of course they are mostly in London, so the impact will actually serve to widen the divide.

Of course, the government might argue that the major impact on regional disparities will only come when the line is extended further north to Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Even then there is absolutely no guarantee that many of any possible further new jobs will not be in London and the South East. In any case, the likely numbers could still be so small that even if they were mostly in the north the impact on the divide would be hardly noticeable.

So what are we to make of the large claims which government continues to make for HS2?

If the Secretary of State really believes them, we surely need to see some hard evidence very quickly. Or, if such claims are as misleading as they seem, are they no more than an attempted sleight of hand to persuade decision makers in the North that HS2 offers them something worth their while?

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About Mike Geddes

Professor Mike Geddes has research interests in public policy and management, including local democracy, local economic development and public services. He has undertaken research for the EU, the UK government and many local authorities, and has led and participated in several large scale policy evaluations for government. He has contributed regularly to the OECD LEED programme on local governance and the work of the OECD Trento Centre, and is a member of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum Research Advisory Group.
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