In the opening days of the second chapter in Boris Johnson’s premiership, the government have attempted to portray themselves as a so-called One Nation party, who will increase expenditure and benefit, notably in the left-behind communities of the United Kingdom. One such ways to achieve this is through schemes to increase investment and create more productive regional economies in the counties that have entered a decline in a post-industrialisation world.
One way how the Cameroons sought to develop such economies was through the so-called Northern Powerhouse scheme, an integral part to this was HS2. In an LBC interview with Ruth Davidson the main architect of HS2, George Osborne, claimed that nimbyism was the sole motivation behind opposition to HS2, but this would neglect the concerns of voters, illustrated in the YouGov poll that suggests over half of Britons oppose the scheme. This is not to say that the British public oppose state support for the railways. Whether this be through reversing the Beeching cuts or in nationalising the railways.
However, when one scrapes beneath the surface of HS2 it emerges that cutting transport times by a meagre 30-minutes is not worth the time, effort and money given by the British taxpayer, and while Boris Johnson is right to review HS2, one would hope that the scheme will be scrapped altogether. The two main concerns that Britons have over HS2 revolve around cost. Firstly, the cost of the project is astronomical. And secondly, whether or not this cost will actually produce tangible benefits for the north of England and the Midlands.
Initially, HS2 was predicted to cost just £15 billion, however even Grant Shapps, the current Transport Secretary, has since then confirmed that the cost has risen to a gargantuan £80 billion. This dwarfs the British defence budget that is around half the size and roughly equates to the entirety of spending on education. But this is only a minor issue that taxpayers should have with the biggest vanity project of the 21st century. The core of Britons opposition to the HS2 programme is that it will not benefit the north of England and the Midlands.
Around 2/3 of members at the Institute of Directors believe that the main beneficiary of HS2 will be the capital. This is because for every two trips to London, many of which as leisure trips, just one would venture to the Midlands and the north of England. As early as 2013 the Department of Transport even confessed that London would benefit far more from this service, and through marginally cutting arrival times, compared to their northern compatriots.
One could also contend that the notion that the northern communities will become vibrant economies as a consequence of HS2 totally neglects the variable economies in such areas. Notably, the proposed route connects London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, none of which are considered to be from the ‘left-behind’ regions of the United Kingdom. Instead these cities, alongside London, are the four richest in England, when considering their Gross Value-Added figures.
This is not to say that the government should not spend on transport but fixating the taxpayer’s resources onto such a flawed project is not the way to do it. Instead the government should continue with a proposal set out by Boris Johnson during the election campaign, in beginning to reverse the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Under these reforms around half of stations were closed and approximately a third of the mileage vanished from the transport map of the United Kingdom. Northern towns like Blyth in Northumberland and in Fleetwood, Lancashire, where 40,000 and 25,000 people were unable to access rail connections and by comparison, within the commuter belt of the south and east of England villages as small as 4,000 have stations just half-an-hour from the capital, including Ingatestone and Hatfield Peverel in Essex.
However, reconnecting northern regions from the north and then down is not the only way to reconnect the United Kingdom. There is room for free-market economics to help reinvigorate the neglected communities. The first are free ports. After Brexit, free ports could provide as many as 150,000 jobs, accumulating £9 billion per annum to the British economy in a significant boost to the industrial and coastal communities. The second is through tax cuts. But while tax cuts for wealth creators are important, equally important are tax breaks for ordinary, working people. Such measures like increasing the salary needed for National Insurance, Michael Gove’s argument for scrapping VAT, and reducing taxes on small and medium size businesses could provide working-people with more money, create more jobs and create another consumer revolution.
In the 2020’s the British people have an amazing opportunity. We can, as the US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, has argued, enter our own golden era. The best way to do this is to reconnect parts of the United Kingdom properly and create opportunities for these communities through cutting red-tape, both in free ports and on the British high street.
By J Walters