Alf Young: Points of order on high-speed rail

Members of the Stop HS2 campaign carry a white elephant to demonstrate their view of the rail link. Picture: PA
Members of the Stop HS2 campaign carry a white elephant to demonstrate their view of the rail link. Picture: PA
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There is little evidence faster inter-city links will spread regeneration even-handedly to the regions, writes Alf Young

WHEN one of the politicians who first set the wheels spinning on the UK’s latest high speed rail project, HS2, says he’s changed his mind, it’s worth paying attention. Alistair Darling, former UK transport minister and former chancellor, says his principal concern is HS2’s projected costs. Costs that could, he warns, “easily run out of control”.

Officially up by £10 billion to £43bn already, four years before a sod’s been cut, reportedly over £70bn in some private Treasury forecasts, what HS2 eventually costs is obviously crucial, especially if, at a time of severe strain on public spending in general, other pressing transport infrastructure investment is shunted back into a siding as a result. There is, however, a more fundamental question about the wisdom of embarking on HS2 that has never been resolved.

Will the first phase link between London Euston and Birmingham (to open in 2026, cutting that journey time by 35 minutes) and the second Y-shaped link northwards to Manchester and Leeds (planned by 2033, taking over an hour off those journeys) bring regional regeneration in their wake and help heal the north-south divide, as coalition ministers ranging from Philip Hammond to Nick Clegg have claimed?

Or will they merely push the commutable boundary of Greater London up into the English Midlands, buttress the capital’s economic resilience and leave the rest of us trailing even further in 
its wake?

Critics of the coalition’s HS2-bearing-gifts-to-the-regions-and-nations-of-the-UK-outside-London case are multiplying. In May, in its first assessment of the project, the National Audit Office was blunt.

“The business case provides little supporting evidence to prove that a high-speed line will help to rebalance the economy by supporting regional growth,” it said.

Last month, John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at University College London, told MPs the kind of economic rebalancing the scheme’s proponents have claimed did not happen in Japan, South Korea or Spain, countries with established high-speed rail networks. All the evidence there pointed to Tokyo, Seoul and Madrid being the main beneficiaries.

“I still think,” Tomaney told the committee steering initial legislation for HS2 through the Commons, “the probability is that when we look at the benefits that accrue from High Speed 2 – the net benefits – the majority will flow to London and the South rather than to northern cities, if past examples are anything to go by.”

Civic leaders in these northern cities don’t agree with the professor. The Manchester-based Core Cities group, which involves the three cities to be served directly by HS2 phases one and two, together with Bristol, Nottingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, believes HS2 will help unlock growth in their cities too.

But the only evidence they have cited is research showing “an over-reliance on the capital city is bad for national economies” and a study they themselves conducted showing the UK ranks only 34th in the world in infrastructure spending.

Needless to say, they all want their own cities linked directly into the HS2 grid and continued commitment to electrification of routes, like Bristol and Liverpool, that fall outside an extended northern grid.

And what of Scotland’s rail links south? There was talk back in January, when HS2’s second phase was unveiled, of Scottish ministers getting “assurances” that Scotland was very much part of the UK government’s plans for the new high-speed network.

However, what these assurances actually amount to has been overshadowed by the UK government fiasco over who should be running the West Coast Mainline franchise and the coalition’s decision to re-privatise the east coast service from Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, there’s an independence referendum to be decided, an upgrade of the London sleeper services to be delivered and the Scottish Government’s own plans to deliver a higher-speed rail link between Glasgow and Edinburgh by 2024.

I’m a big fan of taking the train. Do it all the time. Even manage a few trips to London each year. Got the sleeper back from that game at Wembley just last week. I can even get on a train at nine in the morning in Glasgow Central and, some eleven hours later, get off in Cornwall and, after three or four minutes walking up the hill, be sitting in the wee terraced house there my younger son shares with his partner.

I’ve also been on Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains several times and experienced the AVE service in Spain. I’m all for upgrading lines and rolling stock and ensuring every passenger gets a seat every time they board. I’m all for making rail travel more affordable for all. But I don’t buy the line that procuring faster and faster inter-city links will spread regeneration even-handedly wherever they go.

If there was credible evidence that was so, the Westminster coalition, HS2 and even the Core Cities group in England would be shouting it from the rooftops. I’m with Professor Tomaney. Far from rebalancing economies, the evidence that massive projects like these boost local and regional economies is, in Tomaney’s own words, “ambiguous at best and negative at worst”.

If politicians really wanted to rebalance our economy and give every community, near and far, large and small, opportunities to grow and flourish using their own collective initiative, they would be developing 21st century regional policies not city strategies; high-speed broadband everywhere right now, not high-speed rail no further north than Manchester and Leeds and not till 2033.

Too many of our political leaders are instinctive centralisers, whether they are operating inside the Westminster bubble or at Holyrood. Our devolved Scottish Government has created a national police service and a national fire and rescue service. Further education colleges have been herded into regional multi-campus units. Does anyone believe, if a Yes vote follows next year, that Scotland’s 32 local authorities, their council tax powers frozen for years, the property valuations on which that tax is based nearly a quarter of a century out of date, have much of a future?

Alex Salmond took his cabinet to Hawick this week, claiming “people’s priorities remain the same” whether they live in the Borders or on the Northern Isles. Spoken like a true centraliser, First Minister. One agenda fits all. But it doesn’t. People the length and breadth of Scotland, just like people all over the rest of these islands, are intent on shaping more of their own priorities. The sooner politicians of all stripes realise that, the better.