The boss of Sheffield Chamber has again set out the case for HS2 after a Lords committee called for a ‘pause’ to allow a new assessment of its costs and benefits.
Richard Wright said despite the negatives he was convinced that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail would prove to be good investments.
Like all big projects, HS2 attracts lots of emotion and differences of opinion. It has its issues and nobody can minimise the disruption it will cause to people and environments along its route. The issue is whether the benefits justify the costs. Other large infrastructure projects like the M25, HS1, the Chanel Tunnel, and even the M1 and M6, had their detractors too, but it’s hard to imagine us not having them now.
Despite the negatives Sheffield Chamber is convinced that HS2 (along with Northern Powerhouse Rail) will prove to be good investments. The north has been chronically underfunded on infrastructure for years and these investments will start to address that. They won’t negate the need for local investment as well, but they will join it together. It’s okay the people just north of London objecting to the line to Birmingham but they have consistently had higher investment in the South East for years. They’re alright, Jack.
So why do we think the investment is good?
Good economies deliver good jobs. Long term economies deliver long term jobs. Our children and grandchildren will need jobs. Employment is currently high, but it hasn’t always been so and it won’t always be unless we continue to invest.
There are so many historical examples of traditional jobs being lost. In many ways this reflects progress. Locally we have seen the loss of thousands of coal mining jobs yet only last week we celebrated the fact that none of our electricity was generated from coal for a whole week – the first time since 1889 – because it is good for the environment!
The same can be said for steel. In Sheffield City Region we have replaced the traditional volume steel industry with high value high performance materials. Great industry but doesn’t employ anywhere like the same number of people. What will we do with all the people who run garages and deliver fuel to them when we all start driving electric cars? Who will employ all the retail people as we move to online shopping serviced by warehouses with robotic handling systems? What indeed will we do with all the people who will be displaced by robots and artificial intelligence?
The answer of course is that we will change our economy and do something else and that needs a long-term approach. Research and development is critical. Our own universities backed up by the AMRC and the AWRC are fine examples of how to generate new knowledge and convert it into useful products that customers (you!) want to buy. Our education and training system has to deliver the people to do the new jobs and, very importantly, we need the infrastructure on which the new economy can be built. World-leading broadband connectivity and best in class transport infrastructure are critical components of that. Modern people need to be able to move easier between the major towns and cities north to south and east to west and HS2/NPR will do that.
Of course good infrastructure does not guarantee a good economy (that needs us all doing lots of other things well) but it almost guarantees a second rate one. Businesses invest (and remember that it’s now an international investment economy) where they have the best opportunities, or at least fewer disadvantages, and part of that equation is good transport links.
A Chamber of Commerce isn’t driven by politics and short-term opinions. We need to look at things in the longer term because we know the economy, and all our futures are a long-term game. We believe that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) are part of that. There is an absolute need for the UK economy to be less dependent on London and the South East and that is at the heart of HS2 and NPR’s purpose.
Finally it’s worth dispelling a few myths about HS2 and NPR.
Some people claim they are too expensive for the country. Transport spending in total is approximately four per cent of GDP. If HS2 and NPR are built they will represent approximately 1.2 per cent of annual GDP over the life of the projects at their peak.
Some people claim we could meet future demand by investing in the current network. Every single projection we have seen shows this is just not right plus we will need to get freight off roads and onto electrified rail for environmental reasons.
People say that HS2 is not environmentally friendly. Just go to Sheffield Midland station and test the air. It breaches legal limits because of diesel trains. HS2 is an important step in reversing that.
Some people claim the cost will be more than currently stated. Probably a justified concern if some recent infrastructure projects (Crossrail) are used as examples but it was Oscar Wilde who talked about the person who knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing! We must control costs but we must also understand the benefits the investments will bring. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Finally, I hear people say that we are not getting any advantages now and we won’t deliver the returns in the future. Are they aware that 90 businesses in Yorkshire and Humber are already getting work from building the line between London and Birmingham (which has already started) and we have a brand new rail college in Doncaster? The exciting new development plans for Midland station, being done to accommodate HS2 and NPR, will release lots of commercial space which will deliver the return on the investment and the jobs we will need in the future because some of the ones we do now won’t exist. The same is happening in Chesterfield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Crewe and, would you believe it, Newcastle. The north east and Scotland are all supporting HS2 because they expect it to be extended to them!
Despite the challenges Sheffield Chamber will continue to support HS2 and NPR, just like it will support investments in local connectivity like the Super Tram extension and The White Rose Way and the new East Coast Mainline station at Doncaster Sheffield Airport, because it is the right thing to do.
We absolutely believe it is the right thing to do to redress the lack of investment in the north and to make it an attractive region to invest in and create the jobs for the future.