Keeping faith with HS2

HS2

Ian Pendlington states the case in favour of High Speed Rail 2.

Almost every generation in this country has, at some point, had to endure endless arguments and gloomy predictions about a major Government infrastructure project. The Channel Tunnel, the motorways, the London Eye and even the Olympics Games were just some of the developments over the past few decades that were derided as “vanity projects” and “white elephants”. They were opposed on the grounds of cost, environmental impact, social consequences and, to be frank, a sheer fear of change. For this generation, the current national project under attack is High Speed Rail 2, as the recent and raw politics of Labour threatening to withdraw its support, as well as the Prime Minister’s stark warning at the CBI conference of a “betrayal of the north”, have neatly demonstrated.

The truth is that, as a nation, we tend to get cold feet shortly before these kinds of projects are built, then embrace them afterwards and cannot imagine life without them. But self-doubt always seems to creep in as we start to question if the money (which often seems to be of astronomical proportions to the average citizen) could be better spent. “We can’t afford it and we don’t need it”; this seems to be prevailing attitude. In this respect, the naysayers of HS2 are beating a depressingly familiar drum. However, the facts are that we can afford it and not only do we need it – it’s long overdue.

The truth is that, as a nation, we tend to get cold feet shortly before these kinds of projects are built, then embrace them afterwards and cannot imagine life without them.

Most people don’t seem to have a problem with the concept of a high speed rail (who could complain about getting to your destination quicker?) but baulk at the £42.6 billion budget (£14 billion of which is contingency funding). It’s a tough sell for the Government in times of austerity to be sure, but when you start to look at the bigger picture it becomes clear why HS2 is even more essential in times of economic hardship. HS2 should not be viewed simply as a way to shave a few hours from your journey to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, but as part of an economic strategy to reinvigorate the North: relieving so much of the (unsustainable) social and financial burden that London and the South East are currently having to bear. HS2 is therefore more of a quality of life issue, not just one of transportation.

Of course, it is vital to ensure than any project does not spiral out of financial control. The Government’s decision to appoint Sir David Higgins, who was Chief Executive of the London 2012 Summer Olympics Delivery Authority (bringing the Olympics under budget and on time) as the new Chairman of HS2 is a clear indication that they are determined to ensure costs are kept under control. Moreover, this decision aims to make sure that the business case is clearly made to sceptical voters and politicians.

HS2 offers a unique opportunity for our northern cities to benefit from the financial investment and lack of capacity that exists in London. Many companies may in the future be able to expand into regional offices in the north. Local Authorities who are serviced (directly and indirectly) by HS2 will have a golden opportunity to regenerate local economies. Britain has for too long been “Two Nations”, and if we going to compete with other countries we must be a truly United Kingdom. The Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR in tech speak) may have been slightly downgraded in the Government’s business case published last week (from £2.50 for every pound spent to £2.30), but this still represents a good deal for the taxpayer and the BCR may even double if passenger demand continues to grow at current rates.

Britain has for too long been “Two Nations”, and if we going to compete with other countries we must be a truly United Kingdom.

Doing nothing about the appalling and inadequate capacity of our current network is simply not an option. The West Main Coast line is effectively full but having to cope with increasing demand, forcing many people to endure a miserable peak time commute. The Government has addressed some of the capacity issues through the Northern Hub scheme and electrification of key rails in the north, which should increase capacity and lower journey times, but this will only alleviate some of the pressure. Upgrading the existing lines will not solve the capacity crisis long term and will cause huge disruption over the years that could damage the fragile economic recovery.

Then there is the environmental aspect to HS2. It is understandable that many people are anxious over the prospect of ancient and beautiful parts of the countryside being ripped up, and careful consultation work needs to continue to take place for phase 2 of the project to mitigate the environmental consequences (an environmental consultation has been undertaken for phase 1). However, the benefits that HS2 will bring to the environment have conveniently been ignored. Quite simply, more people in trains means more people out of the sky and out of their cars, reducing carbon emissions and congestion by a considerable margin. Building a high speed rail link must be preferable to building more motorways. Moreover, alleviating the capacity crisis in London will help protect much of the greenbelt in the surrounding areas that would find itself under threat as our population expands and resources become scarcer.

Our transport system has been shamefully neglected by successive governments over decades. As a result, Britain has started to lag behind its competitors in Europe, Japan, South Korea and China. Arguments over the costs and benefits of HS2 will no doubt continue. They can only be educated guesses, as nobody can confidentially predict the technological and social changes over the course of the century that may affect the way we travel and the way we work. However, our heads have been buried in sand for long enough. The facts are that we are running out of capacity and we need to address the geographical financial imbalance. This Government and future ones must ensure HS2 is managed well and within budget, but to get cold feet over building this imperative project would be a betrayal of future generations.

Ian Pendlington is a lobbyist, freelance writer and political adviser. You can follow him on Twitter at @ianp01.

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