High Speed Two in Slow Motion

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There were two pieces of news 10th January which are tenuously linked yet worth reading with the other in mind. One was that the ambitious £32 billion High Speed Two project has been green-lit. It will be built in two phases, London to the West Midlands first, followed by connections to Leeds and Manchester later. The second piece of news was about the most deprived areas in Britain. It included a child poverty map showing that Tower Hamlets currently has the worst child poverty rate in Britain – with 52% living below the poverty line – while by contrast, the home counties including Buckinghamshire, where the proposed High Speed Two route will pass through, have the lowest. There’s been a lot of protest about HS2 from Bucks residents wanting to preserve their countryside and their ears (trains are noisy). But they are not protesting against more job opportunities being created, and there it seems they sort of lose the argument. Following consultation with people in the areas the route will pass through, said route has changed to affect as few buildings as possible. In addition, grass covered tunnels will cover some of the line – as the Times wrote, ‘with extra tunnels to appease the Tories.’

Many children in Tower Hamlets have likely never seen the countryside. This isn’t to say those specific children living in poverty will be pulled out by the benefits of High Speed Two and become free to enjoy rambling through acres of unspoilt countryside shooting wood pigeon, but it puts things in perspective a little. The economic benefits of HS2 could be £47 billion. A rail link that could boost the economy will have knock-on benefits for everyone. Incidentally, the link could cut an estimated 4.5 million plane journeys and 9 million road journeys a year.

But there are some problems.  Firstly, it’ll take until 2015 to get the legislation part sorted and it’ll be 2026 before the first section is completed (and it will inevitably take longer than this). In that time, the socio-economic problems reported today may have deepened to a point where the rail link is too tiny an answer.

Secondly, the projected £47 billion benefits are forecast over a period of sixty years. Now I don’t know about you, but 2026 sounds pretty far off as it is. If it’ll take until 2072 for the benefits to fully outweigh the cost, is it worth it? And do we have a measure of at what point the cost and the benefits will have broken even?

Further, after the taxpayer has in part paid for this shiny new infrastructure, will it be Government run? Or is it more likely a successful company like Virgin will benefit from the profits – as has happened in the past – rather than the taxpayer?

There are strong arguments on either side of the track, but for HS2 to be a real investment perhaps the Government needs to consider this – until redistribution of the benefits of economic growth is better aligned to the socio-economic realities of the UK, then no matter how successful HS2 is, it won’t fix communities like Tower Hamlets.

If it is the case that all is well, anything which serves as an aide to business growth while being environmentally friendly and (I think) quite aesthetically pleasing gets my vote.

A couple of route maps: 1, 2