Rarely a day passes by without HS2 making the media headlines, and last month the project attracted particular attention with both national and regional coverage of the reaction and reception from politicians, business leaders and commentators to the House of Lords Economic Committee’s Rethinking High Speed 2 report.
Some of the cost-cutting recommendations of the report are to reduce the speed of the line and for Phase 1 and Phase 2a of HS2; terminate the line at Old Oak Common in West London, removing the redevelopment of Euston Station and the expensive tunnelling required on this stretch of the line. While reducing cost, these changes will arguably reduce the attractiveness of the line to passengers removing the direct city centre connection for the foreseeable future and decreasing the reductions in journey times. The report also suggests combining the delivery of the northern section of HS2 with Northern Powerhouse Rail but makes no reference to the Midlands Rail Hub that will increase regional access to HS2.
It is therefore unsurprising that the report was ill-received across the Midlands and it is arguably as much about what the report considered and recommended as to what it didn’t. Midlands Connect, the region’s transport voice, highlighted that the proposed major changes ignore the needs and opportunities of the Midlands. This is despite the fact the current plans for HS2 include six stations in the region, each set to benefit from substantial investment and regeneration plans. Indeed, it was a hot topic for most of the speakers at the inaugural Midlands Development Conference held in Coventry on 23 May, with politicians across all parties and business representatives from both the east and west, collectively emphasising the importance of HS2. In particular conversations stressed the importance of delivering the line in full, because for the Midlands it is just as much about connecting the region to our capital as it is about connecting it to the investment and opportunities in the Northern Powerhouse.
In many ways the report is backward looking, returning to tired debates about investment in the North vs. investment in the South. The advent of regionalised transport bodies across the whole of the UK has moved the conversation forward, with large swathes of the country coming together to agree regional investment priorities overseen by regional Sub-National Transport Bodies. This approach has facilitated greater collaboration with central government and has successfully influenced and informed both Highways England and Network Rail’s investment strategies. Indeed, it has long been Transport for the North’s view that the full delivery of HS2 is necessary alongside investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail.
To understand the disappointment and anger of the Midlands at the report, you only need to look at the benefits that would derive on the current proposals, both those already being realised and those forecast for the future. Some that are already being felt in the region include its catalyst for inward investment with 151 Foreign Direct Investment projects in 2016/17 in the West Midlands, up from 57 projects in 2011/12, the relocation of companies, including HS2’s head office to 2 Snow Hill, as well as associated job creation. The planned HS2 station at Toton in the East Midlands is expected to support thousands of new homes, around £4 billion in local economic growth and 74,000 jobs.
Interestingly a large portion of this report’s summary was dedicated to criticism of Government for not heeding the advice of its previous report in 2015, The Economics of High Speed 2, questioning how much influence we can expect this report to have. HS2’s future has divided opinion with the remaining Tory leadership candidates:
Rory Stewart and Boris Johnson are all fairly sceptical calling for an urgent review and all suggesting that if HS2 didn’t go ahead the money could be better spent improving road and rail connections in the North of England.
Michael Gove and Dominic Raab sat slightly more on the fence but calling for a review. Gove wants assurances the project will offer value for money for the taxpayer whilst Raab wants to see a reduction in overall costs but recognises a need to improve capacity name checking Birmingham-London connections alongside those in the North.
Publicly committing to delivering HS2 are Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt both calling the project a vital piece of national infrastructure that should not be scrapped if we want to encourage economic growth outside of the capital.
The future of Europe’s biggest infrastructure project will depend on the continued turbulent political climate with the Conservative leadership contest, Brexit and the potential for a snap general election, all factors fuelling concern for its future.