In December 2020, the National Infrastructure Commission advised the government to delay plans for the proposed stretch of the High Speed 2 rail line which would run from Birmingham to Leeds.
The spiritual successor to the dead-on-its-feet Conservative policy of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the multi-phase rail project, which aims to connect London and the ‘rest’ through shorter journey times between major UK cities, has been steeped in controversy from its inception.
While this could be seen as a simple delay in a bright new future for the economic interconnectedness of Britain, a more cynical view is that this is another problem on the long road of problems facing a project doomed for failure.
Before actual construction began on the first phase from London’s Euston station to the proposed Curzon Street station in Birmingham in 2020, HS2 was a keystone political controversy. With the Department for Transport proposing the scheme in 2009 (under a Labour government) inspired by the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the estimated cost rose steadily in government reports over the 2010s.
Rising in real term projected cost by 46% between 2011 and 2019, an independent report in 2019 from Lord Berkeley was even more disparaging with a projected cost of £110 billion, compared to an estimate of £72.1-78.4 billion made by a government review in the same year.
The spiralling cost projection of HS2 which took over a decade to begin construction after political inception was only one side of a changing understanding of what the mega-project would mean for the economy, with the projected financial returns of the project falling in the same period.
Government estimates began with a £2.40 return for every pound spent in 2011, falling to £1.80 for every pound spent in 2013. Lord Berkeley’s independent review gave a return projection of £0.66 for every pound spent.
While the fundamental economics of the project presents a problematic situation of ever-rising costs and diminishing returns, as efficiency is overestimated and optimism takes over from realism, the reality of HS2 once built has the potential to exacerbate the very problems it seeks to address.
As mentioned above with the potential for delays on HS2’s second phase linking Birmingham with the North, what is seen as an overt focus on the rail links relevant to London above those between northern cities has raised questions of how genuine the Conservative government’s pledge to ‘level up’ the nation outside the M25 is.
With new ranks of Conservative MPs in the North after the 2019 election, HS2 seems like a logical way for the government to address the socio-economic imbalances between the South and the substantial number of northern constituencies which it now represents. At the same time, HS2 presents a risk of achieving the complete opposite, further draining the skilled and educated from the North and Midlands to London as it has done.
The ability for skilled workers to move to London from the rest of England and the wider United Kingdom will only be made easier with faster transport times increasing access to the opportunities of the capital and decreasing the emotional burden of having to move away from home.
Only 27.3% of London’s 2016 graduates left the city for work, the lowest of any region in England, with the threat of an increase in the mass exodus of the young from north to south only increasing as HS2 reaches Birmingham then the northern cities beyond.
While delays such as the one mentioned in the introduction raise questions on whether HS2 will ever truly reach the cities it claims to be built for, the advice to delay this stretch came with the alternative suggestion to improve existing rail networks between northern cities, similar to the so-called ‘High Speed North’ proposal.
Without significant investment in the economies and interconnectedness of northern cities like that of the High-Speed North proposal, this pull towards London will simply be aided by HS2.
HS2 is not a sustainable solution to the divides in the economy and society of the nation, threatening an increasing centralisation of economic activity to major cities whilst the majority of the nation is left out.
With regions of the nation including the North East and South West, not to mention the devolved nations simply being blank spaces on the maps of proposed HS2 routes, the aim of ‘levelling up’ left-behind regions of the nation cannot come from the policies of a centralised government in London. With members of the House of Lords in Westminster comparing York to Outer Mongolia in 2020, can centralised political decision-making be a solution to the problems of a politically and socially fractured nation?
Mega-projects on the scale of HS2 have functioned as a form of economic stimulation in the past, such as in Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, yet today’s world is a very different one to America in the 1930s. The role of the internet in the economy, and the potentially permanent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the need for commuting and physical mobility, calls into question how needed vast cross-country transport projects are.
A focus on local projects designed with the input of local communities must be the focus of government policy, such as transport between smaller towns and within, rather than between, cities.
How to restructure the political conventions of the UK is a question that has no simple answer, but the determination of the government to continue HS2 regardless of the controversy it has generated has shown this change must happen.
Town halls and community centres must replace Westminster as places of the most meaningful decision-making for those areas deemed ‘left behind’, with this more local form of politics potentially being able to achieve what HS2 plans to on a far cheaper and socially sustainable scale.