Calm down dears: Will HS2 rebalance Britain?

The release of proposals for the route of Phase 2 of HS2 north to Manchester and Leeds has fuelled a feverish flood of stories about how HS2 will regenerate the North and ‘rebalance Britain’.

To take just one example: the Daily Mirror announced on 26th January that HS2 will create 250,000 jobs and then on 28th reported four trade unions claiming that it will create 400,000 jobs and help tackle the north-south divide. Other similar claims are flying around. David Cameron says that HS2 ‘will really help to create a better balanced economy’, while Nick Clegg ‘predicts’ that HS2 will ‘heal’ the north-south divide.

But when we dig a little deeper, the government is actually much more cautious. In its policy paper on HS2 Phase 2, it claims only that the new ‘Y’ route to Manchester and Leeds will ‘help to support’ around 50,000 jobs around the proposed new stations in the Midlands and North (excluding construction jobs). This is hardly transformational change, as this relatively limited number of jobs would only be created over a period of decades following the proposed opening of the Y route in 20 years time. Moreover, many of these jobs are likely to be transfers from other locations in the North and Midlands, not genuinely new jobs. Gains for the few cities with stations may well therefore be losses for other places.

Moreover, the evidence from other countries is that capital cities are often the major gainers from new transport links. If this is the case, HS2 may well widen the north-south divide, not ‘heal’ it.

The message to the more fervent proponents of HS2 has to be ‘calm down dears’. Look at the evidence. Look at what government is actually saying, and the wider evidence from abroad. Let’s have more reality and less rhetoric.

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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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