HS2

The following article was written by Richard Honnoraty.

HS2 has been in the news quite a lot over the last few days. Last week the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee stated in a report that it was far from convinced that the project could be completed within the £55.7BN budget. It also stated that the project should not go ahead without a new assessment of its costs and benefits. The Lords were concerned that the scheme focused too much on journey times and not enough on the economic impact on the regions. The first phase (between London and Birmingham) offered little benefit to the North despite the fact that the North was the region in greatest need of rail infrastructure improvements. There was a fear that phase two (linking phase one with Manchester and Leeds) might not be built if phase one resulted in cost overruns.

The government disagreed with this report and a DfT spokesperson stated: “By 2020, the government will have invested a record £13BN in transport across the North and we have a clear plan for linking the Midlands and the North through HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail – the full benefits of which can only be delivered on the back of HS2.

This is not either/or, we are clear we want both.

HS2 will deliver additional rail capacity, significantly improve connections and provide opportunities for economic growth, with around £92BN in benefits, for people and businesses across the North.”

On Tuesday 21 May it was the turn of those in favour of the project to put their case. The Yorkshire Post carried a leader on the topic stating that the scheme had the full support of the Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, and also had the support of several senior council figures including Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, and Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford City Council and the Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

For me, the arguments seem to overlook several important issues. Whilst HS2 may already be delivering some benefits in terms of jobs created, it will not start serving the travelling public in Yorkshire until 2033. Work on “Northern Powerhouse Rail” is evidently not due to start until the mid 2020s. I would be interested to know where the £13BN that the DfT claims will have been spent by 2020 has gone and whether this includes all forms of transport across the whole of the North and over what period. If it is over a five year period and across the whole of the North, then this is not a huge sum. There is some evidence of spending in the form of new buses, park and ride schemes, railway station works etc. but again, this is hardly significant.

I think we have to be more concerned about how we are going to get to work tomorrow, whether the trains will run, whether we will be faced with even more gridlock and whether we will be able to afford the costs. These issues need to be tackled now, not 14 years in the future. If the train I came home on last Saturday is anything to go by, the trains will not be running for much longer. Even when the trains are on time, many journey times are a joke. Rolling stock is in urgent need of replacement. We simply cannot move commuters from cars to rail because there is not adequate capacity on the rail network. Trains often simply do not go where you want so the only alternative is the car. If we carry on as we are, at some stage there could be a very real danger that the whole system will fail. Some may say that this already happens on a regular basis.

Transport infrastructure failings in Yorkshire must be doing significant damage to the economy as a whole. This mess should have been put right years ago. Leeds must be one of the largest conurbations in the country without a rapid transit system.

In my opinion, HS2 may well have some positive impact on the economy but it will arrive years too late, if it arrives at all. Is it any wonder that we have a similar standard of living to some eastern European ex communist countries. People keep going on about the size of the Yorkshire economy, some £112BN per annum, but if the economy was functioning as well as those of most of our western European counterparts, then that GDP figure would be nearer £160BN.

The editorial headline in Tuesday’s Yorkshire Post made me smile: “Consequences of Halting HS2 : Yorkshire could be left behind”. Yorkshire was left behind years ago.

There was a very positive interview with Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the CBI, in Tuesday’s Yorkshire Vision magazine. Ms Fairbairn is in favour of both HS2 and Yorkshire devolution but what caught my eye were three headlined sub-paragraphs in the article:

£110BN The enormous worth of Yorkshire’s economy per year, twice the size of Wales.

5.4M Yorkshire’s population, which is bigger than that of Scotland, Norway, and New Zealand.

11 The number of EU states whose national economies are smaller than Yorkshire’s.

Both Scotland and Wales have devolution deals. Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Slovenia are independent states that are comparable with Yorkshire.

It is apparent that only devolution will provide us with the capabilities we need to thrive but if Westminster won’t listen, there are alternatives to be explored.

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