The government describe HS2 as a commitment to the North and to our regional economy. For those of us living in the North, this is refreshing news. Often, we just assume that Londoners think that everything above Watford is nothing more than a series of abandoned coal mines closed by Thatcher.
Though, the promotional material around HS2 gives me little faith that the project has escaped stereotypical conservative views however. For one, the YouTube video, produced by HS2, featured historic facts of how the railways mobilised the country in the 19th century. It is a classic criticism of conservatives for wanting to return Britain to the Golden, Imperial Age. But there is a more pressing issue than outdated mind-sets, and that is the project lacks serious understanding.
The Department of Transport’s executive summary of HS2, the lack of vision for the Northern economy becomes clear. In an almost comical sense, the summary features four photographs of Northern cities; Liverpool’s Docks, Salford’s Media City, Sunderland’s Software City and Sheffield’s Manufacturing Research Centre. HS2 has no plan to reach any ofthese cities.
The contradictions go even further when you look at the references The Department of Transport used to gather their information. For one, the CBI reference quoted in the summary also features a quote saying:
“… our report made a number of recommendations including a rethink of existing transport policy and a call to focus more on local road and rail projects, not just largenational schemes such as HS2.”
It then went on to reference the National Infrastructure Commission which stated:
“It takes longer to get from Liverpool to Hull by train than to travel twice the distance from London to Paris.
“Route decisions on the northern sections of HS2 … should support enhanced high‑ speed connections within the north, including between Leeds ‑Sheffield, Liverpool‑Manchester, and Sheffield-Newcastle.” (HS2 has no plan to go to Sheffield, Liverpool or Newcastle)
Both references show that the issue is a lack of infrastructure between Northern cities and local communities. To get from my home town of Wigan to Cheshire would take me over 2hours and 3 trains. Yet the Department of Transport has stated Cheshire is a key town for the Northwest’s financial, energy and chemical industries. A key town that I cannot commute to directly via any method of public transport.
The ‘what Liverpool can offer you’ referenced by the HS2 summary praised the convenient transport connections between Liverpool and London that already exist. The same report shows the lack of transport links across the North. Liverpool to Sheffield takes the same amount of time by train or car, and Liverpool to Hull takes an hour longer by train than car. These are major cities, if you live in a small town you will have to factor in busses or walking into the city to get the right train.
The plan for the Northwest includes how HS2 will cut down on commuter times, however in every example the traveller is travelling south, either to Birmingham or London. There is no example of how much quicker it will get from west to east, and that’s because HS2 does not plan on commuters going west to east.
The idea is to link London to the north in the hope that industry will flow from the capital up North. But the reality will be that business will expect employees to commute further. There is no connect of industry to the north, but a connection of the Northern workforce to London’s industry, feeding the brain-drain issue that HS2 is attempting to fix.
What is worrying about the project is that it relies on a laisse-faire attitude that business will react. If the government places the rail down, the business will travel north. Therefore, there is no need to invest in northern industry, the industry will grow on its own. It is an echo of Victorian Britain, where rail is sacred and the best help is self-help.
Growing up in the North, people around me often felt abandoned or negated by their government, and it’s a hard feeling to argue with. The project marketed as developing the north opens with: “London is one of the greatest global cities. It will remain so, but we have to ensure that it does not become a victim of its own success.”
I know southerners think it is grim up North, but being able to get down South quicker is not going to cheer us up.