The Government maintains that HS2 will bring great economic benefits to the North. Some of those promoting HS2 have tried to paint the opposition to the HS2 proposals that has sprung up from Staffordshire southwards as some sort of north-south class war, with overwhelming public support assumed north of Staffordshire. The most crass example of this attempt at stereotyping this “southern” opposition was, of course, the “their lawns or our jobs” campaign. However, until now it has been very difficult to judge what the voice of the man in the northern street is saying about HS2. At last, due to the publicity given to the HS2 Phase 2 announcement and the media debate that has been stimulated, that previously almost silent voice is now being heard.
In the light of this background, I must say that I was very surprised by the reaction of the audience to a question about HS2 that was the first to be posed on the TV programme “Question Time” broadcast on BBC 1 on 31st January 2013, just three days after the Transport Secretary’s Commons statement. The programme was recorded at Lancaster Town Hall, with what was presumably a local audience. Hand on heart, I believe that this was truly a representative audience that had not been “nobbled” by the anti-HS2 campaign. I did not recognise the faces of any of the audience members as campaigners and had seen no messages being circulated in advance of the recording trying to get southern campaigners up to Lancaster.
The question was:
“Is reducing the travelling time from Manchester to London worth £30 billion?”
The two politicians on the panel, Baroness Warsi (Senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities) and Alan Johnson MP, had obviously both read the party briefs prepared for them and were strongly in favour of HS2. They both trotted out the familiar lines.
Alan Johnson said that the issue was capacity, although he didn’t produce any figures of course. He managed to work in a reference to our “creaking Victorian rail system”; that one always goes down well. I have to say, though, that I did admire his epigram that, “We have a nineteenth century railway in a twenty-first century economy” – well I assume that it was all his own work, but I suppose that it could have been in the brief also.
Baroness Warsi extolled HS2 for the improved journey times, but appeared to have gotten a trifle confused in claiming that HS2 would make journeys between Leeds and Manchester quicker. She also trotted out the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ argument:
“If we concerned about the fact that we are ten years behind – or twenty years behind – what’s happening in Japan, we can’t be sat here in ten year’s time saying, ‘well we actually didn’t do anything’.”
The third member of the panel who expressed views in favour of HS2 was Zoe Williams, columnist at The Guardian. Her main point, in a rather lightweight contribution, was:
“Nobody ever likes new infrastructure, but nobody ever – with the exception of the Millennium Dome – complains about infrastructure once it’s been built. You’ve got to, on some level, think about the upsides – you know it’s always very easy to see the downsides of everything – but actually one hundred thousand jobs wouldn’t go amiss and that would be investing in the North.”
Even if the one hundred thousand jobs claim was supportable, which I don’t believe it is, that works out at about £1/3 million per job.
The remaining two panellists were firmly against HS2. Comedian Dom Joly made a spirited attack:
“It’s kind of like we are investing in the Walkman when the iPod’s already going. I think in a big country – over 400 miles say – something like these high speed trains are really important, but in England I don’t think we need them.”
Even, Chairman David Dimbleby felt compelled to comment to the Baroness on the mood of the audience:
“Sayeeda Warsi, it doesn’t seem that popular with this audience – £1,000 a household spent on this?”
“It’s going to be a hard sell, because we’re in the North of England here in Lancaster and you saw universal applause for the point that Dom Joly made, that there are better things that you can do with the money.”
The fifth panel member, writer, journalist and broadcaster James Delingpole, also picked up on the vox populi:
“We’ve got the political class, represented by Alan and Sayeeda, versus the ordinary people it seems. The political class want their grand projet to dump on the British people, costing us £30 billion – and I’m sure that is an underestimate and that it will go far above that.”
He ventured that the politicians’ motivation was that they were “stuck for what to do with our failing economy” and were resorting to large projects to improve the economy in line with “Keynesian principles”.
Four members of the audience spoke against HS2. The various points made were:
“… surely it’s better to spend the money sorting out the current rolling stock and focusing on the fact that there are people in this Country commuting to work, spending thousands of pounds on train fare, to stand all the way there and all the way back.”
“It also strikes me that it’s twenty years too late, because telecommunications have moved on so fast that most people can now do things by their computers and don’t need to catch a train.”
“Perhaps before we start spending such a vast amount of money on reducing travelling times between Manchester and London, we should spend some money on creating some business in the North of England to get this part of the Country back to work.”
“This is just wrong, it will make matters worse. It could even drain away jobs from the North, because it will just make it faster for people to get from the North West down to London. What we need is investment in this region. At the moment it takes you nearly as long to get from Lancaster to Liverpool as it does to get from Lancaster to London.”
Two audience members spoke in favour of HS2. One was worried that the Victorian railways were going to break down, sooner or later, and that we are going to get to a point where it will not be possible to fix them any more. So that’s bad news for anyone who relies on a station that will not be served directly by HS2. The other thought that HS2 would reduce the time taken for her to get home to Hull from Lancaster (currently four hours) – as David Dimbleby pointed out, it won’t.
On the evidence of this TV programme, it would appear that there may be some truth in one of the Government’s claims for HS2. It does seem to have the power to bridge the north-south divide – it would appear that, north or south, the people of this Country are united in their opposition to HS2.
Addendum: I have just out found from whence Alan Johnson pinched his epigram. The text on page 7 of High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Phase Two: The route to Leeds, Manchester and beyond (Cm 8508) includes the following:
“We have a 19th century network straining to support a 21st century economy, with all the inherent limitations that brings.”