As the Conservative conference meets in Manchester, it is appropriate to look at the role of the Manchester lobby for HS2, led by figures such as Graham Stringer MP and the Leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese.
It was Leese who, when Ed Balls expressed scepticism about the escalating costs of HS2, called this a ‘cheap shot’. Quite what is cheap about a concern for the balance between costs and benefits of HS2 is not clear. But it should come as no surprise that Labour criticism of any questioning of HS2 should come from Manchester. Manchester is a leading member of the Core Cities Group of major provincial cities which has been a cheerleader for HS2, making highly exaggerated claims (such as that HS2 would ‘underpin 1m jobs in the provincial city regions, though it turned out that these jobs were not real but part of an over-optimistic economic scenario, and in any case referred to the period up to 2020, well before HS2 might start to operate). Cities like Manchester are also close to Greengauge 21, one of the longest established cheerleaders for high speed rail.
And of course, Manchester would get a station, and with it, according to the government, some regeneration activity and associated employment. So it is no surprise to find Manchester supporting HS2. What is perhaps more important is the role which the Manchester plays in backing arguments that HS2 will benefit not just Manchester but the wider city region or ‘the North’.
This is of course critical for political support in the regions. But it is not the case. Even Sir Peter Hall, a proponent of HSR, admits that while it may boost major cities, it may not help their surrounding old-industrialised regions. Indeed, given that in already well-connected countries like the UK new transport investments will mostly induce business relocation rather than ‘new’ economic growth, any gain to Manchester may represent pain to Bolton, Bury, Burnley and Blackburn.
This gets to the heart of the problem with supporting HS2 on the grounds that increased ‘connectivity’ will improve ‘competitiveness’ and thus economic output, as does the recent KPMG report for HS2 Ltd (1). One problem is that improved competitiveness and productivity may not mean more jobs. Indeed, it may mean the reverse – more output produced by fewer workers. This may explain why KPMG do not extend their (in any case flawed ) analysis to talk about employment. The second problem is that competitiveness is not a process from which all firms/places/people win. The essence of competitiveness is that it produces losers as well as winners. The competitiveness of the Chinese economy in recent decades has deindustrialised parts of the USA, and has also intensified disparities between urban and rural China, creating prosperity for some and accentuating abject poverty for others. This may seem obvious. But it applies to HS2. Increased connectivity might well benefit some people in some places, especially in locations most able benefit, most notably London but also other major cities with stations including Manchester. But there are bound to be losers – the Boltons, Burys, Burnleys and Blackburns. The proponents of HS2 try to get round this uncomfortable fact by claiming that associated investment in local transport networks will enable the whole of city regions to benefit. But this is akin to arguing that Bolton, Bury, Burnley and Blackburn can all win the Premiership at the same time as Manchester (United or City). Further investment associated with HS2 may possibly spread the limited economic benefits a bit more widely. But they cannot overcome the inherent nature of competition. If it’s not Bolton which loses, it may be Burnley. Or, indeed, in the unlikely event that the whole Manchester city region were to gain in competitiveness, it may be Wales, or East Anglia (2).
The moral of this tale is that the Manchester lobby should be seen for what it is – a lobby for Manchester. Not for the Burnleys or Blackburns, Boltons or Burys, who should beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
1. See http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/36335
2. I am aware of the argument that economic growth may ‘raise all boats’. But this could only be the case in an economic system in which competition was not a core driver. So far, attempts to institute such a system have not proved able to maintain competitive levels of growth in the long term.