If there is one thing that could yet save HS2 it is the ‘letting down the North’ argument. Didn’t Boris make a speech in the early hours of 13 December promising the party’s new-found voters in the north that he would never take their votes for granted and never forget them? How, then, would he escape the onslaught that would be launched against him if he decided to dump a high-speed rail line to the north?
We’ve had endless open letters from council leaders, business people and so on in recent months begging the government to go ahead with the scheme. Boris is likely to be especially receptive to the pleas of Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, who asked each of the candidates in the Tory leadership election last year to make a pledge to support high-speed rail.
But Boris should not take seriously the argument that he will be letting down the Conservatives’ new regional heartlands if he cancels or downgrades HS2. Attempts to promote ‘the North’ as a single homogenous place, which will benefit from HS2 or suffer from its cancellation, ignore the socio-economic geography of the country. England does not consist of two halves separated by a north-south divide that can be magically bridged by a high-speed rail line. It is a patchwork made up of some places where there is plenty of wealth and opportunity and other places that are struggling.
If there is a divide between London and Manchester it is nothing like as wide as that between Manchester and the likes of Burnley, Workington and all the other places in the North West that have been bypassed by the great wave of regeneration that has transformed our largest regional city centres in the past two decades. Take a ride to Manchester Piccadilly and you can hardly tell you have left London: it is all pricey apartments, smart shops and swanky restaurants. Central Manchester is a world away from the peripheral towns where the high street has been hollowed out and few businesses will invest.
What HS2 does is link together all the places that are doing well while doing nothing to link them up with the places that are doing badly. Indeed, some of the latter will be even worse off. At least at the moment, trains from London arrive into Birmingham New Street where you can catch a connection to Walsall or West Bromwich. HS2 trains will arrive at a smart new Curzon Street, half a mile away, with no onward connections.
It is remarkable how few of the northern and midlands constituencies which the Tories won from Labour in December are in a location that will benefit from HS2. Wolverhampton? HS2 trains will not connect there. Blyth Valley? Over a hundred miles north of where HS2 will end. Workington? Will remain on a branch line with a yawning connection to Carlisle or Lancaster. Bolsover? Doesn’t have a station and still won’t after HS2. Last November, 25 councils wrote to the government opposing current plans for HS2. Some, like Doncaster, fear being left out in the cold as HS2 would inevitably lead to a reduction in quality of the high-speed link it currently enjoys down the East Coast Main Line.
If the government wants to consult across the North and ask what public transport improvements would make the most difference to them, it would end up with a programme of rail and bus that would look nothing like HS2. Boris has nothing to fear from cancelling the project – so long, that is, that he offers other transport improvements in its place.