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by GK Strategy 17th September, 2019
2 min read

Decision time for HS2: another victim of the UK’s infrastructure failings

Ten years since it was first launched, with £7.4bn already spent and yet another review announced, the benefits of HS2 are being questioned once again.

Whilst arguments in favour of HS2 have remained unchanged for a decade – reduced travel times will boost the national economy and drive regional growth – the economic, technological and societal context have changed almost unrecognisably since 2009.

It is a depressingly familiar situation that has hampered progress on countless major infrastructure projects and risks the UK falling behind globally.

Comprehensive reform to how we approach major infrastructure projects is needed, but in today’s fractious political climate it is hard to see where that change will come from.

HS2: Do the benefits still stack up?

Pioneered in countries like Japan in the 1960s and France in the 1980s, high speed has spread worldwide and the UK lags far behind its economic peers with just one high speed line.

China has invested vast sums into high speed to support its economic growth programme, and from a standing start in 2006 it now accounts for over two thirds of global high-speed capacity totalling in at 18,000 miles.

Given the progress in China and elsewhere in the world, the benefits for high-speed must be clear?

However geographically, the UK represents a different proposition to China, or even to nearer neighbours such as France or Spain. The relatively small land mass of the UK means that journey time savings are incremental, and the costs are significantly higher due to the large areas of conurbation and natural beauty that must be avoided.

And this is where the doubts start to creep in. With the existing budget for HS2 having increased already from the original £32.7bn to £55.6bn, and with a further predicted rise to £80bn, the economics of the project start to look less certain.

Supporting growth outside of the South East is a key priority for the Johnson Government, who hope to connect with the ‘left-behind’ voters who supported the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.

Supporters of HS2 cite real world examples to prove this, such as the development of the Curzon station in Birmingham which has already given a significant boost to the local economy, and tempted the likes of HSBC, Deutsche Bank and PwC into the area. But with a likely recession coming, the new review will be looking for more tangible outcomes than this.

Obsolete before completion?

Over the last 10 years China has built 25,00km of dedicated high-speed railway, whilst the UK have designed a single-track route due for completion in 2026. With technological advancements introducing video conferencing and 5G, both business and people are connected at a click of a button. The last decade has shed the need for regular face to face meetings and it has to be questioned whether technology has superseded the need for HS2.

Buying votes

In today’s political climate, however, the question remains over whether HS2 should be a priority on the Government’s agenda?

Whilst infrastructure spending triggers long term growth and redevelopment, it does not provide the short-term popularity boost that equivalent spending in health, social care and education would.

With an election in the pipeline, and polling suggesting that no party will be on course to win a majority, diverting billions of pounds from HS2 into the NHS might begin to look like an attractive and vote-winning strategy. Indeed, polling from 2018 suggests that such a  move would gain support from as much as 86% of the general public.

Conclusion

Globally the benefits of high-speed rail are evident, but HS2 is just another example of the UK’s inability to deliver major infrastructure projects quickly and on budget.

Over the decade we have spent arguing about it, the economic and political case for the project has grown strained and, in the same time period, China has managed to build thousands of miles of railway before we’ve even started in earnest.

With a decision over Heathrow expansion still in the air, the need for major capital investment in our health system and growing need for new nuclear programmes to replace ageing fossil fuel capacity, it is a problem that the UK must resolve, and fast.

Though in an era of hung parliaments and limited political capital on all sides, it’s hard to see a government who will push through major infrastructure reform anytime soon.

And that might be something we all regret.

Author: Leah King-Cline. Leah is an intern at GK studying Politics at Leeds University.

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