Why HS2 won’t benefit the North | Matt Gillow

Does anybody actually want HS2?

With a limited business case, no environmental case, and inflated costs hitting over £90billion, it’s no wonder that even celebrities have recently come out in opposition to the government’s current vanity project.

I’m wary of a Boris ‘red bus’ moment — but you’d be forgiven for thinking that £90billion could be better spent elsewhere — particularly with the public finances on shaky ground. Indeed; even to ignore the more emotive cases for greater healthcare spending, or reallocating the funds to education — recent figures have outlined the shocking disparity between London and the North when it comes to transport funding. The Department for Transport has admitted that high speed rail is dramatically worse for the environment than a conventional one; could we not be spending the money on improving Northern transport links, rather than a project which will be obsolete by the time it opens?

One argument for this diabolical white elephant is that it would ‘unlock’ the power of the North. No, it wouldn’t. Without first devolving fiscal power to local Northern administrations, HS2 would work hugely to the detriment of the North — rather than encouraging London based firms to move Northwards (where they still rely heavily on Westminster and the most centralised state in the developed world,) there is next to no evidence that HS2 wouldn’t just encourage workers to move to the City. Without dramatically accelerating the devolution agenda to encourage investment in the North, HS2 could easily spell disaster. When high speed rail links two cities, then economic activity is bound to favour the larger, the more dominant. As opposed to the notion that individuals living in London will be suddenly convinced to make a commute to Birmingham – business in London will experience a sudden deepening in the pool of potential talent. Those in the HS2 ‘link’ cities are far more likely to take the slightly shorter than previous trip to London, for higher wages and a career in the City – and who can really blame them for the drain on the Midlands and the North? For a government with the wind knocked out of them, this should be too big a risk to take.

If the government was serious about ‘unlocking’ the potential of the North, it would devolve greater powers to the Northern regions and allow them to encourage business out of London with lower corporation taxes. It would support ambitious cities like Leeds in its aim to become the UK’s capital of digital – a home for upstart tech firms, by unequivocally slamming any talk of a ‘tech tax’ and improving life for small businesses by cutting rates. We’d consider moving elements of our political world out of London, to encourage tourism and industry. Instead, gigantic, out-of-control projects like HS2 take money out of the pockets of Northern people (and everyone else, for that matter) wreck villages and the environment.

Some Taxpayers’ Alliance figures: HS2 will cost £403 million per mile. HS2 Ltd exceeded their budget for PR consultancies alone by £87 million. Redundancy payouts for members of staff totalled £2.76 million. This is a gross mismanagement of taxpayer’s money for a project which, according to the Public Accounts Committee, is based on ‘fragile figures and out-of-date data.’

Around a year ago, I attended think-tank Bright Blue’s Social Justice Conference, at which the then de facto Deputy PM Damian Green defended HS2 quite feebly — arguing that he wouldn’t want to pull out of investments ‘in the future’ on the premise that ‘we may need it.’ With George Osborne out of office and out of favour, there seems to be nobody willing to put forward a compelling case for the former Chancellor’s fledgling. With HS2 set to use around 3 times more electricity a ‘normal’ high speed rail route would use, and only two high speed lines globally actually turning a profit, you can see why.

I’m slowly becoming convinced that HS2 is an unbelievably subtle plot to convince the UK again of the virtues of businesses, the free market, and generally keeping the government out of things. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to look at HS2 and think ‘great job, let’s let the State run all of our transport.’

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