HS2 – a divisive project of a divisive government

A divisive government

The Conservative-led coalition has proved to be a divisive government. It has presided over an era of austerity for the vast majority, while bankers continue to earn big bonuses.
The recent so-called ‘recovery’ led by a new house price bubble in London has had little impact on the insecurity and falling living standards of many households, especially outside the South East.

“Councils covering the 25 most deprived areas of England are bearing the brunt of cuts, while the 25 overseeing the least deprived spots are relatively unscathed.” Peter Hetherington, The Guardian, 5 February

This north-south divide will not disappear any time soon.

“Because the economic growth of London and the southern regions is expected to remain stronger than growth in the other regions of the UK, this (north-south) differential is not expected to narrow.” Cambridge Econometrics, Economic prospects for the nations and regions of the UK, January 2014

HS2 – a divisive project

HS2 is presented by the government as an ‘engine for growth’ – a silver bullet to bridge the North-South divide. In reality however the reverse is true – it will enhance the dominance of London and its impact on economic growth is highly questionable.

The clear consensus of research studies, both in the UK and abroad, is that new transport investments such as HS2 primarily benefit the dominant economic centre which they connect.

“Taking the evidence in the round it is very difficult to substantiate the argument that high speed rail is likely to have a positive impact on regional inequalities.” Professor John Tomaney, Evidence to Transport Select Committee reviewing recent research

Increasing numbers of local authorities are realising that possible growth around stations in core regional cities will be at their expense.

HS2 would not have a ‘transformational ‘ economic impact as the government claims. This is because new transport investment in an already well-connected infrastructure tends to relocate economic activity more than create new growth. Even the discredited government-commissioned KPMG report on the regional impact of HS2 showed that many localities away from the route would suffer economic losses.

The lack of convincing evidence for HS2 has been highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, while the government refuses to release the Major Projects Authority report which graded HS2 red-amber.

Meanwhile, the focus by government on the supposed capacity constraints on the West Coast Main Line hides serious problems on other parts of the rail network. It is not credible to suggest that, given the continuing constraints on public expenditure, we can have our cake and eat it- both HS2 and competing improvements to the national network and to commuter services.

Despite the PR hype for HS2 from the government, opinion polls routinely show that HS2 is unpopular with voters. People see HS2 as being for the few, paid for by the many.

A majority (55%) of the British public oppose HS2. Among Labour voters the proportion is 60%.
YouGov, September 2013

As with much else, this government is out of touch with the people.

The one nation alternative

The alternative to HS2 could be called the one nation alternative. It would recognise the constraints on public spending, and so prioritise value for money. It would look to spend scarce resources in ways which bring benefits across the country.

Important principles for a one nation alternative were set out by Labour’s Sustainable Transport Commission, abolished by this government, which showed that local transport investments produce much better social and employment returns than ‘grands projets’.

Recent studies show how such principles can guide an alternative to HS2.

The New Economics Foundation has undertaken detailed analysis which documents how the money for HS2 could be used to upgrade the existing inter-city network, overhaul regional rail, and improve walking and cycling infrastructure at the same time as upgrading the national broadband network – http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/high-speed-2-the-best-we-can-do.

Even in the North, commentators do not see HS2 as a top priority.

A major programme of investment (across the country) that combined network electrification, complementary enhancement (eg four tracking on certain corridors) and a selective re-opening programme could be achieved quickly and would have a far greater economic impact than HS2.
Paul Salvesen, author, Railpolitik and Colne Valley CLP

Value for scarce public money or a vanity project?

Influential voices across the political spectrum have been seduced by this glossy project with its superficial connotation of a high-tech prosperous future. But it is increasingly obvious that support for HS2 comes principally from a limited range of vested interests.

As we come up to crucial decisions such as the second reading of the Hybrid Bill, and with severe constraints on public spending for the foreseeable future, now is not the time to give HS2 the green light. Far better for Labour to put down a marker against reckless spending and in favour of public value.

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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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