The Trouble with HS2, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Luke Jeffery

With the first ‘High Speed 2’ train set to start running in 2026, there is one immediate positive for the people of the South at least; it will arrive before a Southern Rail train.  For those in the North of England however, the news that the HS2 train brings with it is far from positive.  As an example, little information about the exact route of HS2’s second phase journey from Birmingham to Leeds has reached the ears of the home and business owners of towns like Wakefield, just one town on the proposed route.  They are simply not getting enough information from the government, or HS2 Ltd, on how the route will affect them.

With this in mind, HS2 was the flagship project of the Conservative’s 2015 manifesto pledge to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ which involved improving rail and road links, boosting the economy and the creating a starting point for UK wide growth.  However, one of the major issues surrounding the whole project since its conception is just how big the financial cost will be and how many people will lose their homes because of the proposed route?  Government has put the figure at £55.7bn, but this has been set to spiral upwards to something closer to the £100bn mark.

There are countless reasons why there is so much opposition to HS2.  Issues ranging from the environment to the forced demolition of newly built housing have seemingly outweighed the positive economic message of the high-speed railway.  In fact, YouGov shows public opinion was against HS2 when it was initially proposed in 2012 and that there is no sign of that changing.

Many in the North doubt that HS2 will benefit the region or lead to any significant change owing to the expectation that more people will use the link to head into London than will travel outwards, unbalancing the flow of capital and investment in favour of the capital. No wonder that those in the capital are more optimistic than those outside.

Compounding problems for the second phase of the project, worth some £6.6 billion, was the fact that small and medium sized enterprises (SME’s) were not awarded contracts on 17 July, with government instead choosing a ‘troubled’ firm and foreign contractors. This snubbing of SMEs has led some senior figures to note the potential problem of a national skills shortages which will likely to hit the UK over the next 20 years, as some 25% of workers in the construction industry are set to retire in this time.  Rico Wojtulewicz, policy advisor for the National Federation of Builders, has said that “the route will go through many rural communities where SME’s are the predominant employers…there is a real danger that projects will stall’.

This skills gap is likely to hike up labour costs at a time when HS2 is not the only mega-project being built in the UK.  Other projects like Crossrail will add to the “increasingly acute lack of engineering talent in the UK” which “risk undermining the Government’s plans of fostering economic recovery”.

However, HS2 does have some potential to help tackle the skills shortages with the whole HS2 creating huge supply chains for businesses of all sizes and so there is some basis for a sound economic argument for HS2.

The political reverberations of HS2’s proposed final route from Crewe to Manchester and Birmingham were met with cries of displeasure from both Conservative and Labour MPs in a rare show of unity against the transport secretary’s handling of the £56bn project.  This displeasure has been amplified by the ongoing debate on why so much money is going into HS2 when public spending is being squeezed in other areas.

Image credit: Matt Buck @Flickr

Sources

  • Robert Wright, Andy Bounds and Gill Plimmer, ‘Chris Grayling forced into late-night defence of HS2’, Financial Times, July 17th
  • Andy Bands, ‘U-turn on rail schemes hits Northern Powerhouse Plan’, Financial Times, 21st July 2017.
  • Laura Hughes, ‘HS2 track plans: Brand-new homes to be bulldozed as final plans are revealed’, The Telegraph, 17th July 2017.
  • Helen Pidd, ‘Here in the North, we’ve put the cross into rail’, The Guardian, 25th July 2017
  • Helen Pidd, ‘Living in the path of HS2: ‘we don’t matter do we?’, 21st July 2017
  • Press Association, “Theresa May remains ‘absolutely committed’ to HS2 rail link”, The Guardian, 29th April 2017

 

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