What an HS2 hullabaloo… err, not.
When Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead to the eye-wateringly over-budget rail link, I expected my inbox to be inundated with emails from people offering their twopence worth on the “controversial and difficult” decision. After all, it is supposed to herald “a revolution in the nation’s transport provision” that will power up the currently seriously underpowered ‘northern powerhouse’.
But there were a handful at best. Could it be that people just don’t believe the HS2 hype?
While those who did comment were broadly welcoming, CBRE’s Martin Guest going so far as to call HS2 a “honeypot” that would prove “irresistible” and Bruntwood’s Jessica Bowles describing it as an opportunity not to be squandered, I suspect most people viewed the flurry of national media coverage as having all the significance of soon-to-be-yesterday’s chip paper.
Johnson gave the game away when he talked of “the vision to dream big dreams”. The whole thing sounded like a total fantasy. The outrageous numbers being bandied about don’t help. Who can take seriously a project that has ballooned in cost from £56bn in the 2015 Budget to as much as £106bn, according to one estimate, or that will not see the first phase – from London to Birmingham – complete until 2031 or the second phases – to Manchester and Leeds – until 2040? As more than a few members of the public noted, they won’t live to see the benefits.
There is also the question of who, what and where exactly will benefit. For everyone who trumpets the increased capacity, slashed journey times and halo effect on locations in the Midlands and the north promised by HS2, there is someone else railing against the rail link’s escalating costs, extraordinary timeframe and potential impact on the environment. I am inclined to agree with Richard Wellings, head of transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs, who reckons “the costs are now likely to exceed the benefits”.
It is little wonder many do not believe the project will make it beyond phase one, fears that have only been stoked by the decision to review parts of the route beyond Birmingham. The second phases are certainly not fit for purpose as they stand. I’m of the view, like many in the north, that the colossal sums involved would be better spent on improving rail links between the major ‘northern powerhouse’ cities of Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester rather than a weird Y-shaped line between London and Leeds and London and Manchester. The city that seems to benefit most in the current scenario is London, which is surely not the point of a revolutionary ‘national’ rail project.
The problem, as with so many government initiatives, is that HS2 is being looked at through the wrong end of the telescope, the southern end. There are glimmers of hope. Johnson wants to bring the 2040 delivery date forward and has set up a new delivery body High Speed North to oversee construction of the second phases. Plus, the review could lead to a new and improved proposal for those second phases.
My worry is that the parts of the country that should benefit the most won’t benefit at all – and unfortunately, we will probably have to wait until HS2 is a lot further down the track before we find out if Johnson’s “big dreams” are likely to become reality.