It’s the (impact of HS2 on the) economy, stupid

My previous blog post brought the entirely valid response that I do rather look at High Speed 2 through the southern end of the telescope. So when, last week, I was invited to be a panellist in a Guardian on-line discussion about the effects of the line on local economies I thought it would be an ideal opportunity for me to do some CPD.

Mind you it was a rather strange experience. Twelve panellists, and numerous interjections from the “floor”, resulted in over 250 comments posted in a 2 hour period. That’s one every thirty seconds. It was like being in a surreal combination of a virtual Examination in Public and an online speed dating event. Everyone was posting at once and the Chair (well – moderator) was desperately trying to have some influence on content. Meanwhile I was frantically posting comments in between reading a few random responses, and only getting a vague idea of what others were saying. The Campaign to Protect Rural England tried to defend their decision to welcome HS2, a Birmingham Councillor said how great it would be, and my fellow blogger David Marlow did a sterling job getting people to stick to the subject.

It was only when I went back and read the 12,000 words posted by the panel that I got some idea of what had gone on. The data published on the issue got an airing of course. The official Sustainability Appraisal is pretty pessimistic about job creation – despite the Government’s bullishness -with most of the limited employment growth being in London. But a 2010 KPMG study was much more optimistic.

Pride of place went to one panellist from the West Midlands who claimed that HS1 had generated 70,000 jobs in Kent, and HS2 could do the same for them. It may be that his finger slipped at a crucial moment – heaven knows my contributions were a triumph of opinion over spelling – but I’m afraid that the truth is, just like the forecasts for HS2, that most of this job growth is expected to be in London.

It was also made clear that places at any distance from an HS2 station will need a lot of investment in new connecting public transport links to see the benefits. If you arrive at New Street and your train to London leaves from Curzon Street , 11 minutes walk away (travel time calculation courtesy Google Maps), then you’ve lost nearly half the advantage of the faster service. This is a really good point, but it won’t come cheap. And it is one of the conundrums of the project. Commentators like Christian Wolmar are arguing that you should upgrade urban public transport instead of building HS2. I now realise that what supporters of the line want is that you should do both.

Of course in a world where funding for public infrastructure was less constrained that might well be a good idea. Major cities with excellent public transport are some of the most liveable and successful places in the world. But what happens if you get HS2 and you don’t get the connecting infrastructure because the money runs out? Parkway stations might thrive, but edge of city centre termini could be inaccessible backwaters, doing little for wider regeneration. Indeed if predicted passenger numbers materialise the car parks at Birmingham International would probably be full by 8.30 every morning. Still – it could provide a very profitable sideline for the NEC, with its acres of underused tarmac nearby.

Another very apparent perception was that London has had too high a proportion of transport investment for too long and it is time the north and midlands got its fair share. As ever your opinion on this depends on which facts you choose, but there is no doubt that it has a strong political momentum behind it. Supporters of HS2 are expecting the Government to stick to its vision of rebalancing the economy away from London, and delivering on the line is a key litmus test of this promise. Given the primary relationship at the heart of the coalition I am also expecting this to mean the announcement of a spur to Sheffield as part of the plans for Phase 2 – though there isn’t one to Witney of course.

I’m still unsure that there is real substance behind this aspiration to use HS2 to remodel our national economic geography. Of course successful economic development is one half evidence and one half marketing, and I don’t underestimate the promotional power of the simple equation: Shiny New Train = Go Ahead Place = Let’s Invest Here. But another panellist, Tim Leunig, best known to Planners for his notorious 2008 Policy Exchange publication Cities Unlimited (subtext– Will the last person to leave the north please turn out the lights) had no doubts. As he pointed out, HS2 will bring the London to Manchester travel time down to 1 hr 8 mins – roughly the current time taken to reach Birmingham.

“So,” he asked. “Do we really want to spend £35billion transforming Manchester into Birmingham?”

All this had got me thinking about how the places I had walked through, that would simply see the train rushing past at over 200 mph, might secure some economic benefits. This isn’t easy, but I did manage to come up with three ideas. The first is obvious. Have a strong “buy local” policy during construction, so that nearby pubs, shops, contractors and suppliers get some trade.

Mind you when I put this to a pub landlord in Northamptonshire he was very sceptical. “Health and safety will stop it. Any worker spotted coming out of a pub would be on a disciplinary. And management wouldn’t want to be seen in the village because of all the opposition”. The days of record takings when the navvies drunk the local pub dry on a Friday night would appear to be firmly in the past.

Then I got all enthused by watching Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys, in which he criss-crosses the country making use of Bradshaw’s Victorian railway travel guidebook. A slight whiff of daytime TV about it, but good fun all the same. So, I thought, is there a “Bradshaw’s” style promotional opportunity using the view from an HS2 train window? Admittedly you’ll be in a cutting or a tunnel half the time, and if you blink at the wrong moment you’ll also miss the overground sections – but still. All the seat backs on HS2 are bound to have TV screens. Perhaps HS2 Ltd could fund a short film showing all the lovely places you are about to shoot through, and encouraging you to go back to them for a weekend break. That is pretty much the raison d’être of the Tour de France these days after all.

My last idea is more rooted in reality, and I got it from the CPRE panellist in the on-line debate, Ralph Smyth. Apparently HS1 had a Rail Link Countryside Initiative which funded regeneration and heritage projects along the line – so local people and places got something back. According to Ralph, the restoration of Cobham Park is the best example. A simple, effective idea, which in terms of the overall project only needs small change. Mind you, even with all my proposals, and better mitigation, it will remain an uphill battle for the Government to win hearts and minds on HS2 in the shires.

And finally – if you still want more from me about this, the feature on my trip back to Northamptonshire will appear in Planning Magazine this Friday, and I’m also speaking about my HS2 walk at two upcoming events – a seminar at Oxford Brookes University Planning Department on 21st February, and an RTPI conference in Aylesbury at the end of March. Do come and ask questions (easy ones preferred).

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  • Michael Bach

    A review of research done up to the late 1980s showed that the economic effect of major transport infrastructure projects was not one of growth but redistribution towards the end of the link that already had advantages. The findings are pertinent to the impact of the M4, Thames river crossings and HS2.

    The “road” in is also the road out when it comes to regional economic development.

    Margaret Grieco,The impact of transport investment projects upon the inner city: a literature review, Avebury Press, 1994

    This report questioned, on the basis of a comprehensive review of the existing literature, the extent to which urban transport investment projects could be viewed as either generating economic development or resolving the problem of congestion. The report has been designed to assist planners and those interested in planning issues to assess the key arguments in this debate without making major time investments in undertaking individual literature searches. Although the report was produced in 1987, as recently as April 1993, the report received parliamentary mention as the key document in this field. The issues raised in 1987, the relationship of transport investment to economic development and congestion, remain the key issues in 1994, although whereas economic development was the most dominant issue in 1987, congestion is the key issue in 1994.