There is a very real danger that the shape of England will shift decisively if a new Prime Minister is elected and ends up only taking HS2 as far as Birmingham. That is a distinct possibility if HS2 is reviewed; the already committed costs – around Euston and at Old Oak Common – are likely to exceed the value of cancellation but phases 2a and 2b, to Crewe, then Manchester and to Leeds, look distinctly vulnerable.
Given the Government’s – and the National Infrastructure Commission’s – already clear commitment to the golden triangle, including its own “belt and road” known as CaMkOx – might the new shape be more diamond-like? The real action and growth will be expected from those areas within lines between London, Cambridge, Birmingham, Oxford, Bristol and (possibly) Southampton. Investment will inevitably follow.
This would be a new – and almost certainly unwritten – spatial plan replacing the picture that many of us have of the country divided in two with a line drawn from the Wash to the Avon to separate north from south. The diamond would leave the north – and indeed the whole Northern Powerhouse agenda – once again left behind. And at a time when it is increasingly self-confident, articulate and indeed indignant at its treatment as the poor relation.
The Northern Powerhouse already has a number of detractors; those ruralists who think it too urban focused; towns who say it is too city centric; for others it is too much dominated by Greater Manchester; some say it’s too North West fixated and not delivering for Yorkshire and other areas in east. However, the biggest – and in my opinion the only genuine – criticism is that the Government is far too half-hearted about its own initiative.
This is the crux of the matter. The Northern Powerhouse initiative was begun by George Osborne, who also presided over a swingeing austerity that disproportionately withdrew spending from the north. This has tarnished the brand and made many cynical. The question now is: are they genuinely committed? The Brexit paralysis has been a good excuse for inaction, but it seems that we’re fast approaching a tipping point. A key moment for a significant decision.
Let us be clear. It is not supportive of the north to speak platitudes about Northern Powerhouse Rail on the one hand and cancel HS2 on the other. First, NPR is an even longer-term project than HS2 – delivery of the new much needed Leeds-Manchester NPR line is planned for 2043, HS2 arrives 2033. Second, why do we have to choose between when both are needed? We wan it all, and after waiting a long time for fairer spending on transport per head, we deserve it. The rallying cry is improvements to day-to-day services now, HS2 and NPR!
As is often lamented there is no publicly available, debated and agreed Spatial Plan for England, just the one in the head of the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the day. As the 2070 Commission made clear in its excellent interim report, this has left the UK one of the most regionally imbalanced countries in Europe and these inequalities are increasing, which is bad for economics and for politics.
When the East of England launched its excellent report this week – An Engine for the Nation’s Prosperity – I was struck by how easy it is to make the case for investment in that region, already a net contributor to the Exchequer, as the ‘Green Book’ return per pound is high. But if we are to take a longer-term view, as the scheme’s original architects did, then HS2 is a key part of the solution for joining up the country and creating one nation.