HS who?

Peter Vinden, looks at why HS2 is still failing to change public perceptions

Our political leaders have been out in force this week, as each brings their 2015 manifesto to every corner of the UK for the one-month election countdown.

As each party hurtles towards the final ballot, one of the most sought after votes they need to win along the way is that of the construction sector. The last few years have seen numerous pledges for more housebuilding schemes and further prioritisation of the skills shortage, but this still hasn’t been enough to weather the industry drought.

Yet for the major political parties, there is a solution: HS2. With claims that everything from youth unemployment and stalling construction figures to the workforce migration from North to South could be remedied by the £50bn scheme, it seems that plans for the hugely unpopular project could be back on track.

The proposed solutions would be encouraging, were it not for the fact that so few share the views of our politicians. Survey figures released last week revealed that just one in 100 respondents in the North West region regard HS2 as a government spending priority, while 43% of those asked say it is at the bottom of their list. These sentiments echoed those expressed by the House of Lords, which said it was yet to hear a ‘convincing case’ that the project was capable of increasing railway capacity and rebalancing the North and South economies.

So what’s the reason for such a disparity between leaders and the electorate on this issue? When Labour and the Conservatives are championing the new rail as a key component of their employment, infrastructure, development and economic policies, could it be that those opposed are being distracted by the financial costs and ignoring the long-term benefits?

In a word, no. As a construction business with a head office based in the North West, my first question in response to the current HS2 dialogue is why shortening a two-hour journey to one would take precedence over the improving road and rail infrastructure throughout the northern regions, which would surely be the best approach to tackling construction figures.

As anyone packed onto a commuter line between Bolton, Manchester, Salford and any of their neighbouring towns could tell you, the demand for infrastructure improvement and skilled workers is still there. Why the prospects for skilled apprentices and regional construction companies are limited to one scheme with projected costs of up to £100bn remains a mystery.

Unconvincing construction arguments aside, many also believe HS2 is likely to prove the opposite of what it promises, and if anything will encourage the migration from the North West to the South in search of employment. When Manchester has just received new devolved powers regarding urban planning, infrastructure and transport, it seems like a regression to then channel such a huge investment into linking London by an hour.

What we’re really seeing in the HS2 plan is increased support for huge construction firms and for London businesses at a time when the North West is more capable than ever of controlling its own destiny. The Manchester devolution has encouraged increased engagement between the other major northern cities, and helped address the need for development in Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and the towns in between.

With such progress in mind, providing quality inter-city links between the northern cities and regions would surely be a more profitable use of public finances. HS3 discussions have at least brought focus towards the North’s regional network, and are being recognised in conjunction with a number of other development initiatives, including housing and local infrastructure.

Presenting HS2 as a preventative measure for employment and construction figures in the region is misguided at best, and deceptive at worst. While we all might be in agreement that the quickest route to recovery is the one headed north, we need to remove the distraction of this expensive scheme and promote more construction and connectivity in the areas that need it.

Peter Vinden is the managing director of The Vinden Partnership

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