HS2: Don’t betray the Midlands and the North

With a decision on the future of HS2 imminent, council leader Cllr Ian Ward argues that the project must be completed in its entirety to rebalance the UK economy.

The long-running soap opera surrounding the future of HS2 looks finally set to draw to a close after Boris Johnson told parliament: "There will be a decision very shortly."

And, if the Government is genuinely serious about re-balancing the UK economy, then that decision must absolutely be for HS2 to ahead in its entirety.

We all know that the Midlands and the north have been hardest hit by a decade of austerity and any decision to scrap or scale back HS2 would be another huge blow - a blow that would have devastating consequences for the people of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and other towns and cities in the Midlands and the north.

That's because HS2 is about much more than fast trains. It's about jobs, opportunities and economic regeneration. Here in Birmingham we are already seeing the benefits of HS2, with thousands of jobs already created and money being invested on the assumption that HS2 will be delivered. The same can be said for the other towns and cities now hoping that HS2 is given the green-light.

Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake recently reflected: “What we’ve seen in Leeds is just the promise of HS2 coming in has been transformational in itself," while Newcastle leader Nick Forbes warned that the North East risks becoming a backwater if the HS2 high speed rail project is scrapped or scaled back.

The big problem with HS2 is that the messaging has focussed too much on 'S' for Speed. Of course, the further north the line goes, the more important speed becomes, but the biggest advantage of the whole HS2 project comes in the shape of dramatically improved capacity on our rail network.

HS2 will free up capacity on the rest of the rail network, improving connectivity within – and importantly between - our cities.

And I'm not just talking about capacity for fast inter-city services, but for those local regional and commuter services between small towns that have been so neglected for far too long. HS2 connects 8 of the country’s 10 biggest cities. When linked in with crucial upgrades to the existing network, like Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Rail Hub, all 10 cities will be connected more closely than ever before.

HS2 will take express trains off the West Coast Main Line that links London with Birmingham and the cities of the northwest; the Midland Main Line that links London with the East Midlands and Sheffield; and to an extent the East Coast Main Line that goes up to Leeds and Newcastle. That, in-turn, will free up capacity across a huge swathe of the country for local services.

Network Rail boss Andrew Haines this week insisted that HS2 is the only viable option to realistically deliver desperately-needed extra capacity on our railways. In a leaked letter to the Department for Transport, he warned that scrapping HS2 would lead to 30 years of delays.

An important consequence of freeing up capacity will be the shifting of more freight onto rail - an important step towards zero carbon emissions.

Analysis by Midlands Connect in September last year revealed that the increased capacity that HS2 frees up on the traditional rail network would create space for 144 extra freight trains per day, which could carry over 2.5 million lorries’ worth of cargo each year. Transporting freight by rail rather than on our roads produces 76 per cent less CO2. Reducing traffic on our over-burdened road network is now more important than ever as we collectively work to tackle the climate crisis.

Add that to the jobs, economic opportunity, increased capacity and improved local services and it is clear that HS2 has the potential to define the lives and the life-chances of young people growing up in Birmingham.

So, if the Government intends to keep its word and properly re-balance the UK economy, then it must proceed with HS2 – the largest infrastructure project in Europe and one that’s shovel-ready to go.

Anything less will be a betrayal of the people of the Midlands and the North.

This blog was posted on 30 January 2020

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