One of the main concerns about HS2, apart from its vast cost and disruptive effect on the countryside, is that in shortening distances between London and the North, it might lead to the capital further draining talent and money from other regions.
Not so, says an official HS2 review leaked to the Times this week. The draft report by Doug Oakervee, a former HS2 chairman, says that ‘some of the greatest changes to connectivity are the non-London connections’ north of Birmingham, and concludes that cities in the North and Midlands are more likely to benefit from the project than London. He’s right – and Kent’s HS1 shows why.
The line from St Pancras to Ebbsfleet in Kent faced similar objections in the 1990s, before it was fully completed in 2007. But since then, it has benefited destinations out of London, not the capital itself. The route, servicing high speed trains from London to towns all over Kent, has had a transformative effect on the county, helping to revive its dilapidated and once moribund towns and secured the prosperity of its already successful areas.
Perhaps the best-known example of a town coming back from the dead is Margate, right on the north-east tip of the county. Like so many British seaside resorts, its fortunes began to dip in the 1970s with the boom in cheap foreign travel, reaching a nadir in the 1980s. Many seaside towns, such as Blackpool, still haven’t recovered, which makes Margate’s revival stand out all the more.
The cost of London living and the advent of HS1 have combined to help the entire county. For example, in 2017, 1,830 people moved from London to Thanet, the area encompassing Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, with just 760 people moving to London. ‘Up until 2010 this place was really in the doldrums. Really from 1970 to 2010’, Ian Dickie, director of the Margate Museum, told Geographical magazine this month. ‘Now tourists are coming back… The place is beginning to look alive again’. A recent House of Lords select committee, citing the Dreamland amusement park and the Turner Contemporary art gallery (which claims to have brought in £68 million to the local economy since opening in 2011) described Margate as a ‘clear instance of successful culture-led regeneration.’
The pattern is replicated elsewhere. Folkestone, equally miserable at the turn of the millennium, has witnessed a comparable renaissance, albeit with the financial input of local tycoon Sir Roger De Haan. Folkestone also boasts an arts hub, and with it a triennial art show, a book festival and public art collection. The town’s Old High Street is now filled with cafés, boutiques, and music and clothes shops. Folkestone’s harbour, the port of call for ferries until services stopped in 2001, has also been reinvented as a summer venue for bars and cafes.
The town is less than an hour by rail to London since HS1 was opened, and now solidly falls within the capital’s commuter belt. As does Deal, up the coast. By the 1990s this one-time colliery and garrison town had not so much become run-down, but utterly lifeless: the Royal Marines left in 1981 while Betteshanger coal mine was shut down in 1989. Before the high speed connection opened, it took 2hrs 20mins for the train to get into London, which made it nonviable as a commuting town (I know someone who tried the five-day a week commute then; he found it impossible).
Since the HS1 service arrived in 2011, Deal to St Pancras now takes 81 minutes. Consequently, the town has seen its own revival, even reinvention. In 2013 it was the Daily Telegraph’s high street of the year.
It is not all good news. Those escaping London’s spiralling house prices have in turn pushed up prices in the county, and the preponderance of second homes has left some parts of Kent’s towns during the week and in winter deserted. There also remain areas of poverty in Margate and Dover, while Ramsgate high street is a disaster zone. Nevertheless, HS1 has demonstrated that a new, high speed railway, far from sucking more wealth into London, can do the reverse, and bring more people and money out of the capital.
Patrick West is a writer based in Deal, Kent