Jonathan Schofield says ditch HS2 and spend the money on HS3
The Economist carries a good quote in its recent Bagehot column. Max Hastings, who hired Boris Johnson when he was the editor of The Daily Telegraph, said of the new PM that he showed "cowardice, reflected in his willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction."
More jobs across the M62 belt would be encouraged if the rail infrastructure was first class instead of third class
Johnson has been more generous than Santa Claus since he took office on Wednesday last week. His gift-giving ebullience has been unmatched in so short a time by any fresh prime minister in British history. This is all part of him wanting the UK, if there still is a UK, to be the "greatest place on Earth" by 2050; a clean, green, technological Union flag Utopia. Billions are being promised to boost health, education, declining towns and infrastructure.
Johnson was in particular crowd-pleasing mood on Saturday when he visited Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. At the home of the world’s first passenger rail system, he promised to deliver a new super-duper rail link between Manchester and Leeds.
This upgrade will be part of a £39bn Northern Powerhouse rail boost. Johnson promised a detailed report on the route in the government’s autumn report, which will be collated with the assistance of northern local authorities and businesses.
The Confederation of British Industry and others have given a guarded welcome. Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham summed up the general mood, telling the BBC the PM’s words "certainly sounded good" but reminding listeners that he had heard "something very similar in almost the same spot from George Osborne five years ago and, in those five years, rail services here have gone in reverse."
The autumn report will follow a review of HS2, which has risen in cost from £32bn to £56bn. However, many analysts now think HS2, linking London with the West Midlands and the North of England, will cost much more than £56bn and maybe as high as £86bn. Jeez, you could probably buy your way back into Europe for half that.
The government should ditch HS2 right now and divert all the money to the so-called HS3 (or Northern Powerhouse Rail), from Liverpool via Manchester and Leeds to Hull, with a spur to Sheffield and options to Newcastle. Of course, this would mean millions wasted in consultancy fees and preliminary work already conducted for HS2, but it would be far more logical.
Manchester has a two-hour rail link to London already: cutting this by half an hour or so for the billions involved seems misguided, and would possibly lead to even more of a drain of talent to the South East.
Manchester, in particular, is attracting good new jobs with GCHQ, Amazon and others moving in, especially around MediaCity. More jobs across the M62 belt would be encouraged if the rail infrastructure was first class instead of third class. Jobs already here would be encouraged to stay.
A further problem with HS2 is it’s being built the wrong way round. The first part will be from London to Birmingham by 2026, and then Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds by 2032. The polarity should be reversed. Linking the great cities of the North and Midlands and getting business flowing between these economically and strategically crucial regions - letting them feed off each other and encourage each other - would lead to a far better balancing of the economy than what presently might happen.
To construct the London to Birmingham route first seems ridiculous and, given the disparity between the economies of the two cities, might bleed Birmingham rather than boost it. This twisted thinking is something the Prime Minister said he wishes to avoid. "We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and communities,” he said. The present HS2 plan still stinks of Whitehall London bias."
The vague announcement of a Manchester to Leeds fast railway to "turbo-charge the economy" by Boris Johnson is welcome as he seeks to deliver "great public services, enough affordable homes, safe streets, fast broadband, and more responsibility and accountability for local areas."
So in the autumn let’s have a realistic timetable for delivery. Let's not wait another five years, as Burnham underlines. Then let’s have a timetable for extensions to Liverpool, Sheffield and ultimately Newcastle. In Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire alone, never mind the travel-to-work areas just over their borders, there is a population of 7m. This is bigger than Denmark, Norway, Finland and a whole raft of other important sovereign nations. It makes sense to raise the M62 belt’s capacity to contribute to the nation’s wealth, before creating links with the South East.
As for where the money might come from, funds diverted from a ditched HS2 might just be the ticket. Let's hope Santa Boris Johnson wasn’t, in Hasting's words, telling his museum audience "whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction." If he wants to get the country’s politics back on track after being stuck in the sidings of Brexit, if he wants to give himself a legacy, then a proper HS3 would be one tangible result, hopefully of many. We’ll be watching and judging you up here dear Bojo, action now please.