Leeds and its metropolitan region should be one of the big winners from HS2. Financial and legal services, engineering consultancy and higher education are all strong sectors in the city, and these can benefit from an improved connection to London – and to the world via Heathrow.
Halving the journey time should make a difference to Leeds’ knowledge economy, which would allow the expansion of national firms’ regional offices. HS2 should be seen as one piece in the competitiveness jigsaw, with a qualified labour pool, the region’s cultural and natural assets, education and housing quality, regional infrastructure, and the league position of Leeds United being others. Leeds currently scores well on all these except the last.
There’s plentiful land to grow the city centre south of the river Aire, and it’s to be hoped that the HS2 station would be a signature building since the architectural quality of the city’s 21st century developments could do with a lift. The aspiration must be to attract national head offices and Government departments. In this market, the journey time and reliability down to the brass plate functions in London, and the way travel meshes with other forms of communication in 20 years time will be key.
One worry is whether parts of Leeds become an offshore island of the South East, leaving other parts of West Yorkshire behind. Regional politicians and the local enterprise partnership have much to do to ensure the benefits are widely spread, spatially and socially, and the final design of how the high speed link connects to regional transport will be crucial.
Ironically, a project tagged as an “engine for growth” will begin by seriously disrupting local economies, such as Camden, west of Euston station in London. The impact on business and the extent of the 10 year disruption from construction is huge, and will bring a loss of green space, increased pollution in an already polluted area, and long periods of night-time disturbances. There is no compensation on offer for loss of trade, and opportunities have been missed for regenerating the area.
HS2 estimates that 215 dwellings will have to be demolished, while Camden council estimates that around 500 will be uninhabitable during construction, most within the Regent’s Park Estate’s social housing. It will be extremely hard to rehouse these families, with more than 25,000 already on the housing waiting list. Even leaseholders could be forced out as compensation would not be sufficient to buy similar accommodation in a borough where the average house price is £837,550.
These local costs do not negate the case for strategic projects in the national interest. But they do raise questions about how they are defined and implemented. We need to accept that the way these megaprojects are framed is crucial. How success is defined shapes the kind of project that is delivered. The failure to realise the full regeneration potential or offer fair compensation is driven by a timescale criticised as “overambitious”. Driving headlong to meet deadlines and budgets leads to problems if they dominate decision making.
If the project were to take a bit longer, cost a little more but deliver more benefit or cause less disruption, then any decision making process needs to properly consider these options. There is a loss of trust when mitigation measures and compensation is treated as secondary to financial concerns and a tight and apparently arbitrary timescale. There is a deep suspicion in Camden, and along the route, that this is why other options have not been properly considered. Trust is an important commodity especially in strategic projects where the local consequences are so profound.
The North West of England has a long history of prospering from large and contentious capital infrastructure projects: the Bridgewater canal (1761), the world’s first passenger transport railway between Liverpool and Manchester (1830), and the Manchester Ship Canal (1894) to name but a few.
In the context of those projects, the long-term economic position is that reliable, frequent and good value mass transportation between large cities is a core component of supporting economic growth and prosperity. But any assessment of the true economic impact would be very difficult to quantify, and efforts to do so appear unbalanced and very subjective – essentially an instrument to justify the arguer’s political principles, generally displaying a Beechingesque or Brunelian fundamentalism depending on the position.
My position on HS2 stands on the premise of value, something the government has not expressed particularly well. This is the central plank of the debate. To be clear, I am in favour of subsidised public transport, as there is often market failure in provision in all but peak hour Monday to Friday travel. However as cost projections reach £42 billion, together with an average peak fare of possibly £350-£450 in today’s money, I’d rather see investment spent supporting current infrastructure or improving reliability and reducing costs of peak hour travel.
The business case for investment rests on the economic benefit, but this will only truly materialise in full for small and (particularly) and large businesses in Manchester and the north if the costs of frequent travel does not prevent them from competing against businesses closer to London and the South East.
Ultimately, the HS2 decision must not be rushed through for political expediency. Other possible engineering options, their cost and value must be considered – compared to our European neighbours the price per mile appears poor value. And any business case must consider the consumer of publicly funded, high speed transport; ultimately the economics rest on ticket prices appealing to enough users to make the service viable without relying on significant continued public subsidy.
The case for HS2 seems to have shifted toward its possible role in boosting regional regeneration. Here, HS2 may be necessary but it simply isn’t sufficient on its own.
It’s been said for some time that if HS2 simply stops at the buffers at Curzon Street Station then the West Midlands region won’t reap the benefits of the high speed network. Isolated towns and communities need linking in to boost economic growth, which means HS2 must be integrated into the region’s transport network.
That needs a vision and a plan, now a lot more difficult since the abolition of Regional Development Agencies in England. London got to keep its development agency and its assets, of course, and what’s on offer to London isn’t available to other English cities. In fact even after the government’s City Deals policy, England will remain the most centralised state in Western Europe.
A less London-centric approach to high speed rail requires redressing the balance of power from the capital to other cities, a fresh impetus towards regional governance, and a more equitable distribution of funding between London and the rest. While not as far advanced as in the North West and Yorkshire, discussion around forming a combined authority was moving forward in the West Midlands. But what voluntary regional collaboration had achieved in the past depended heavily on a handful of motivated individuals – just not robust enough for the long-haul required to make the most of HS2. Regenerating the West Midlands means linking HS2 to as much of the region as possible, and that’s far more likely when proper regional governance and powers are in place.
The evidence underpinning the HS2 debate comes from detailed cost-benefit analysis, a technique developed a century ago by French and US engineers to try to de-politicise the process of investing in infrastructure. Once described by Peter Self, following Jeremy Bentham, as “nonsense on stilts”, cost-benefit analysis remains our principal way of weighing up and planning future projects. Yet the method misses many costs and many benefits from the calculus as they cannot be meaningfully priced.
The debates about the benefits of time saved, congestion eased, and growth stimulated are very important, but inherently speculative because they are about the future more than 10 years hence. For John Maynard Keynes, this unknowability of the present benefits of capital investment for the future was the reason that the “animal spirits” of entrepreneurs are so important for economic development.
So, can we turn the HS2 debate into one that is about the sort of country we want for the future? A country that is proud of its transport network, or do we want to be “living in an old country” as per the title of Patrick Wright’s book, with ramshackle intercity transport and a growing north/south divide?
The outcome will shape our own sense of the nation, and the perceptions of those abroad deciding whether or not to invest in UK manufacturing and infrastructure. Of course we need to ensure value for money where that concept can be meaningfully applied, and ensure the costs of HS2 are minimised – in terms of capital expenditure and of impact on the countryside. But we also need to think about what sort of country we want to be and to have the courage to make the investments necessary.
Daniel Durrant receives funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). He is a researcher at the OMEGA Centre, a research institute within the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL that was set up with funding from Volvo Research and Education Foundation (VREF).
David Bailey has received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, European Commission Interreg programme, European Commission FP7 programme, and others.
Peter Mackie was until 2012 a member of the Analytical Challenge Panel set up to provide advice to HS2. He is currently an external adviser to the Airports Commission. He has in the past held grants and contracts which relate to the economic appraisal of transport projects, not always specifically railways.
Graham Winch and Kurt Allman do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.