The financial figure attached to the HS2 project is a big one. North of £80Billion according to latest reports. Of course, if the much-needed infrastructure project had been built when it should have been, forty years ago according to its chief architect Lord Andrew Adonis, that price tag would have been significantly lower. If HS2 is further delayed following a review that has been announced by the government, then the likelihood is it will never be developed. Imagine what the cost will be in 2029?
However, this week the new Transport Minister Grant Shapps gave the clearest hint yet that the initiative is now in serious jeopardy.
So, do we need what critics describe as a vanity project and advocates claim will drag transport connectivity, THE Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse into the twenty-first century.
In Downtown’s opinion the answer is an unequivocal yes. Currently, much of the regions rail network is stuck in the nineteenth century! This project, along with the planned improvements to the East-West line that will better connect northern towns and cities, are essential if the stated ambition to rebalance the UK economy is to be anything more than a politician’s soundbite.
Lest we forget, this project is not just about Birmingham and Manchester. It is the most ambitious infrastructure scheme that transport chiefs have devised and actually connects the core cities of the entire country. It has already had a hugely positive impact on the renaissance and regeneration of Birmingham, a city that was in the doldrums for too many years, but has used the promise of the new HS2 line as a catalyst for much of the improvement and investment that can be evidenced in the Midlands capital today.
The project name, we confess, doesn’t help. HS2 has nothing to do with speed. Getting to and from London half an hour quicker from your city is hardly a game-changer for a business leader. However, helping business retain talent, providing people with greater job opportunities and giving businesses access to new customers and clients in UK cities and regions are all proven evidenced based advantages that the scheme will deliver.
In the short term too, we know that HS2 will help to create jobs, stimulate economic activity and provide an almost instant return on investment.
That investment of £80 billion will be spread out over twenty years or more, so it is hardly a figure that is prohibitive for a country that talks about £8 billion for Brexit preparations as if it were pocket change. We also know that government borrowing rates are on the floor, so there has never been a better time to get on with the project. Indeed, given the likelihood that, Brexit or no Brexit, a recession seems likely, a smart country would be investing in its creaking infrastructure to avoid the worst consequences of a downturn.
In terms of environmental impact too, independent studies suggest that HS2 will have a positive effect on our carbon footprint, taking cars and lorries off the road, relieving our city centre’s of the nightmare gridlock scenarios we see during peak hour on a daily basis – and offering a genuine alternative to the transporting of freight. There will also be a reduction in demand for short distant air travel.
That is a prize worth having. And don’t fall for the Westminster Mandarins line about choosing which is most important, HS2 or the Northern Powerhouse line or the investment that has been promised to Andy Street for the regeneration of the West Midlands regional network. We need and deserve all of this long overdue investment.
This is an investment for the next one hundred plus years. £2Billion a year to create a state- of- the- art rail project is chicken feed. Remember too, Londoners receive around £2,500 per head more on transport spend than those of us who live north of the Watford Gap. HS2 won’t equalize that, but it will be a decent start.
It is not often Britain attempts an ambitious infrastructure project. The political system makes expensive, forward thinking investment projects unlikely to return much political capital. Elections aren’t won by promising improved transport links for the next decade. However, it is to be hoped that, given the general cross-party support that this project has enjoyed over a period of many years, the planned HS2 review panel will prioritise the clear long- term gain of this exciting initiative over any short- term political considerations.
Downtown’s message to the government is ‘Get on with it – because we’re worth it!’