Optimism and anxiety at the HS2 Economic Growth Conference

David Alexander reports from an upbeat but nervous meeting of HS2 stakeholders.

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HS2 Economic Growth Conference, Leeds. 03.09.19

Passing waves of military canon and eccentric Tudor war helmets, I entered the conference hall as Wagner’s Rise of the Valkyries boomed out of the sound system. The Royal Armouries in Leeds was the setting for this ‘HS2 Economic Growth Conference’, and the message from the get-go was bombastic enough to enough to match the slightly surreal surroundings: HS2 is happening (please).

Gathering over 250 attendees from local government, business and the project itself, here was a relentless onslaught of general optimism, with only occasional tempering to heed HS2 Ltd Chairman Alan Cook’s call for “the voice of optimism” being matched with “the voice of reason”. Jonathan Bretherton assured us that “planning and wider work is continuing regardless of threatened delays”, while Steve Hollis stressed that “world precedent shows that major infrastructure can be a transformative catalyst for economic growth”, but that “momentum was crucial” and the private sector wants to be planning and making investment proposals in the context of overall commitment and growth. “Not everything we do will have positive effects for everyone” conceded Bex Seeley, Commercial Finance Director at Lendlease, while Rob Valentine, Director of Bruntwood, admitted that the iconic but now often desperate Northern mill-towns were “not easily saveable”. These were, however, only minor bumps in the (rail)road of optimism.

And yet, through it all, there ran a parallel sense of private, foot-tapping anxiety, voiced more in the foyer during breaks for ‘networking’ than on the main stage. The independent review commissioned by the government less than a fortnight before the conference was regarded with a slightly combative enthusiasm- “We welcome the review!” exclaimed Alan Cook, prompting echoes of the same feeling throughout the day. Audience questions belied deeper worries, however. Again and again, questions were asked wondering what would happen to individual areas, development plans and already started projects, if the decision was made to end HS2, or part of it. By far the most popular question, as voted for by the audience, was “What would you say to Boris Johnson if you were stuck in a lift with him for twenty minutes?”. The people here had real influence but there was a basic acknowledgement that the ultimate, fate-deciding decisions about the project lay out of their hands.

There were also private laments for what was repeatedly stressed to me as “completely well-intentioned” mismanagement at every level. As I write, a quick Google of ‘HS2’ is telling. It brings up stories of “absurd” amounts being spent on security guards to protect a tiny plot of empty land in Birmingham, and “10 places in Aylesbury Vale” which would be irrevocably blighted if HS2 goes ahead, as well as a report reiterating that Douglas Oakervee, chair of the HS2 review committee, is quite prepared to cancel the entire project.

But then how many could deny the very real, economically unbalancing gravitational pull of London, siphoning students, graduates and powerful business investment away from the ‘provinces’. Infrastructure investment duly follows suit, with £2, 700 per capita in London contrasting shockingly with just £5 per capita in Hull. The tension between centre and regions was mentioned repeatedly, and brought home with thumping force by Kay Cutts, Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, who announced, to the palpable enthusiasm of the Leeds-based audience, that “we [outside London] are the country!…We need you, Government, but you need us!”

The media debate had, we were told, unfairly painted the project as being all about getting to London more quickly. In actual fact, all stages of new and improved rail services constituted the fullness of national “connectivity”- a word surely used over 100 times. Richard Gregory, Senior Advisor and Honorary Yorkshire Bank Chair at CYBG, made the project’s fundamental selling-point the ability “to build a career without having to move to London”. Companies lined up to describe their own projects, based on the presumption HS2 would be completed. All was in an attempt to undermine reports from the New Economics Foundation that 40% of the benefits of the project would go to London and that the £56bn budget would be better spent on upgrading the existing network and undertaking smaller-scale local projects. Arguments that the proposed railway network connecting northern cities and transport hubs, ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’, would be a sounder investment were undercut with a demand for “both, not either/ or”.

The tension between thumping optimism and every-stage uncertainty is what makes HS2 such a divisive and fascinating issue, even in times as politically turbulent and soap-opera dramatic as these. On the other hand, it’s also an issue that has dragged on across decades, governments and fluctuating economic outlooks, and prompts as much frustration as it does enthusiasm. With the future so unclear, one of the few things we can do with much certainty is note, with irony, how patently the development of the country’s second high-speed rail network has failed to live up to its name.


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