Much has been made in recent weeks about the reasons we should build HS2. Speed? Capacity? Connectivity? No, it’s all three, and more.
For me, it is straightforward. Our national economy needs to have a better balance. London is in danger of becoming unsustainable, while the draining effect this has on the rest of the country is already resulting in a two-speed recovery.
Whether you are an engineer or anyone else, it is becoming increasingly difficult to afford to live in the capital. The ratio of available mortgages to the actual price of houses is becoming more and more difficult. Then, even if you can afford that, congestion throughout the transport system is as unpleasant as it is inefficient.
Add in the most expensive commercial property market in the world and we have a growing problem.
We need to rebalance the economy and HS2 makes a significant contribution to doing just that; first, by relieving the crippling capacity constraints that the rail industry faces on a daily basis south of Birmingham, and then transforming connectivity further north.
If you are an investor looking at the UK, you are confronted by two unpalatable choices: office rates in central London of around £80 per square foot and an average house price for your employees of £485,000; or alternatively, you might look beyond London and an office rate, say, in Leeds of around £20 per square foot, or a mortgage in Manchester 230% lower. Your issue then is a journey time from Manchester to London - with its access to the global market - of over two hours. On a train where you may not get a seat. Some choice.
HS2 will cut that journey time in half. That is why building HS2 is one of the great strategic interventions of our time. Do we keep adding more and more pressure on London, while leaving the North to wither and die, or do we have the clarity of vision to recognise that the time for prevarication is over?
Our politicians come in for a lot of stick, but, in fairness, I think they recognise that choice. I sat through and listened to the Second Reading debate on the HS2 Hybrid Bill. As an engineer, it was a humbling and inspiring experience. Quite rightly, many MPs talked and speculated about the negative impact HS2 would have on their constituencies, communities and individual families. It was impossible to listen without feeling a real sense of responsibility for that pain.
Equally, across the floor of the House, there was a very real sense of the unique opportunity HS2 represents to change a situation in this country in which ambitious people, whether engineers or not, feel that to succeed they have only one option: to go to London. People in the Midlands and the North should feel they can succeed in the global market without having to leave the community that made them what they are. That is why, I think, MPs voted in favour of the bill by 452 votes to 41.
I respect the integrity of each of the 41 ‘against’ votes with the utmost seriousness, but, equally, I value the mandate those 452 votes have given us to continue this project. Each one represents an explicit choice by someone who has stood on doorsteps to earn their right to decide for the people of this country.
Each one, therefore, says that, despite the legitimate controversy and questioning around the project, we should continue. Bolstered by that support, we will.
- David Higgins is chairman of High Speed 2