I will declare straight away that I have a specific interest in seeing HS2 confirmed and supported by our ‘new’ Tory government. Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC), of which I am the chairman, would face a very uncertain and different future if the HS2 station proposed for Old Oak were cancelled.
While even with the loss of HS2 I could see an argument for continuing with a Crossrail stop, without the interchange potential I am not sure that that would be high on TfL’s overburdened list of priorities. The immediate impetus for creating a new sustainable district of London would be gone and while I think the area would eventually support a major regeneration initiative, it would almost certainly be put back for many years, if not decades.
But the shilly-shallying over HS2 has even bigger implications, both for the Midlands and the north, as well as for international confidence in a post-Brexit Britain.
Reliable infrastructure is vital for a healthy economy and for all forms of development. I have been stuck far too many times on the rail lines from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds than I care to remember because of congestion, breakdowns and the lack of capacity on our outdated and overcrowded network. Our railways need modernisation and while the emphasis on speed has perhaps been misguided, I have no problem with upgrading to the latest and best technology.
The regeneration impetus for Birmingham has already had a massive impact on the economy of the West Midlands, with major businesses choosing to relocate there. Similar effects are to be hoped for at Crewe, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester.
But what really gets me down about this HS2 hiatus is the effect it has on the nation’s reputation. We’re seen as a country that simply cannot make up its mind about big infrastructure – all the more damaging as we head towards Brexit and need to convince the world we are not heading into decline and recession.
The trouble is that for the UK a decision to proceed seems to be merely the start of a nationwide debate about whether we should do it or not. We spend millions – probably nearer a billion – on the first stages of the development and then we threaten to waste it all by cancelling the project.
Even before the arrival of our new prime minister, HS2 chairman Allan Cook had been tasked with carrying out a cost-cutting review, which has already led to speculation about, for example, the possibility of stopping HS2 at Old Oak or the reduction/delay in the northern sections to Manchester and Leeds. Douglas Oakervee, an ex-chairman of HS2, has now been asked to conduct a further rapid review of the project. One can only hope that it is indeed as quick as has been promised.
There is a degree of irony in the fact that it was Mr Johnson, when he was mayor of London, who established the OPDC and was its first formal chairman, to be succeeded by his then chief of staff, Sir Edward Lister. If both of them believed then in the benefits of HS2, I can only hope they have maintained their faith. So come on Mr Johnson – let’s have a quick and positive decision on HS2 so that all of us in London, the West Midlands and the north can get on with building the homes, communities and businesses that we need.
Liz Peace is chair of OPDC