HS2: Maker of some cities but breaker of others?

The announcement of the proposed route of HS2 Phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds has reignited the arguments about whether HS2 would reduce the North-South divide in economic prosperity and dynamism.

Much has been made by supporters of HS2 (eg Greengauge 21) of the research of Peter Hall and Chia-lin Chen, encouraged by their assertion in a recent letter to the Guardian that HSR ‘definitively does’ help lagging regions. But when we look more closely at this claim, and the research behind it, all is not what it might seem.

In the first place, Hall and Chen themselves go on to qualify their initial bold assertion in several ways. They note that most of their evidence comes from a study of the 30-year-old Intercity 125 network (1). This is of course very different from HS2 – apart from slower speeds (‘low speed HSR’) the 125 network serves many more stations than HS2 would, and thus is likely to spread any positive economic effects more widely. And while they conclude that HSR can boost major cities, they admit that it does not necessarily help others, especially older industrial cities which are so important in the Midlands and North of England.

But there are also other reasons why we should be sceptical of Hall and Chen’s assertion that HSR definitively benefits lagging regions.

Some of these refer back to their research methodology. What they do is to compare economic trends in places on and off the Intercity 125 network, showing that, on the whole, places served by the Intercity network did better than those which were not. But it needs to be recognised that there is a huge step between noting this correlation, and claiming that HSR was a major causative factor in these urban economic trends. In a similar way, they appear to attribute the economic success of Lille in France to HSR (2), whereas it is very arguable that other transport and regeneration investment in Lille may well have been of greater importance than that the TGV. Moreover, it is not clear that Hall and Chen’s research effectively challenges the view that, in already well-connected countries like England, new transport links create little new economic growth but merely redistribute economic activity. Finally, they produce no evidence on the impact of the 125 network on London itself, and thus have nothing to say on the key issue of whether HSR widens rather than reduces regional disparities between the capital city and the provinces, as other research suggests (3).

So what is left of Hall and Chen’s assertion? Evidence that some provincial cities (those with stations) might get a boost from HS2 is hardly new, and as the current route proposals envisage very few stations, this merely tends to confirm that regional economic benefits – if any- are likely to be focussed around Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and the Nottingham-Derby axis. But such benefits are not likely to be large – even the government’s estimates of new jobs from Phase 2 of HS2 are modest, as opposed to their lofty but unsupported rhetoric of “transformational change”. And, as Hall and Chen themselves admit, the extent to which economic benefits fan out beyond these regional core cities to surrounding areas depends not on HS2 but on high levels of co-ordinated government planning and investment in subregional and local transport links, skills and other economic and social infrastructure. They seem willing to give government the benefit of the doubt, and support HS2 with the proviso that this investment will need to be forthcoming in addition to, and is not displaced by, HS2. In the context of austerity, public expenditure cuts and the recent abolition by the government of the institutional infrastructure for regional development, this seems a very risky punt. Indeed, developments around HS2 stations may suck economic activity away from less favoured locations. In any case, as other commentators have argued, there may well be more cost-effective and quicker ways of upgrading the national transport network and regenerating regional economies than HS2 (4).

In the meantime, the most appropriate summary of the position may be a phrase which Hall and Chen themselves quote: that HSR is ‘the maker of some cities but the breaker of others’. In the case of HS2 Hall and Chen offer little to dispute the proposition that HS2 would continue to buttress the position of the London city-region, and while it might contribute a boost to a few provincial cities, it threatens to undermine many others.

Notes
1 C-L Chen and P Hall (2011) The impacts of high-speed trains on British economic geography: a study of the UK’s InterCity 125/225 and its effect. Journal of Transport Geography 19, 689-704.
2. C-L Chen and P Hall (2012) The wider spatial-economic impacts of high-speed trains: a comparative case study of Manchester and Lille sub-regions. Journal of Transport Geography, 24, 89-110.
2 Eg Albalate and Bell (2010) High speed rail: Lessons for policy-makers from abroad. Working Paper 2012/3, Research Institute of Applied Economics, University of Barcelona.
4 Stokes C (2011) Optimised Alternative to HS2 – The Scope for Growth on the Existing Network. Buckinghamshire County Council for 51M.

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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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