Sunday, February 03, 2013

Our reservations on HS2

Let’s be honest, successive governments have failed the North of England. A high speed rail line to London is the latest initiative designed to help our economy. But it brings with it some sizeable risks. I think there are four main dangers lurking ahead.
One, and possibly the biggest risk of all to the prosperity of the North of England is that the solution to the economic lag of the North is somehow solved by building a  railway.
Yes, it will help, but it mustn’t be used to tick a box. It is an enormous investment, but it is going to take an absolute age. The time it will take to build the thing is a generation away. It is bold to take such a long view, but much more needs to happen in the meantime.
As I argued on BBC’s Sunday Politics last week – trying to get a word in edgeways between junior Tory disability Esther McVey MP and Labour MP Hazel Blears – Enterprise Zones alone won’t achieve economic growth. The same applies to HS2, Regional Growth Fund and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Too much box ticking is going on in isolation, too little joined up thinking.
Two, it is being built the wrong way round. If the aim is to help the North, then the first phase should be to redevelop Piccadilly station, build the tunnel under south Manchester, connect the airport and provide further connectivity to Manchester Airport, making it accessible from all points south.
Three, something very serious needs to be done to address the transport infrastructure of how the country is crossed from East to West. The expansion of Liverpool docks by Peel deserves fulsome support for how goods are then distributed to the rest of the North. By throwing so much capital infrastructure into HS2, it kicks this urgent need into the long grass.
Four, the shorter journey time to London starts to shrink the reach of the talent pool. As Manchester and Leeds are two hours from the capital then it makes sense to have a physical presence in the North. Cutting journey times to an hour undermines the case for that. I think the flight of senior corporate finance professionals from Birmingham to London has been evidence of this.
Finally though, and positively, the strongest argument for the building of HS2 is that it will relieve capacity on the West Coast Mainline. Yet it doesn’t sound as electrifying as cutting journey time to an hour, but it is the most practical and necessary action that needs to be taken sooner rather than later. Too much freight is on the roads while the line is so full.

This is a crosspost from my Downtown Manchester blog.

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