The proposed HS2 high speed rail line between London and the north can “radically transform the economic and social landscape of the UK”, says Nuno Gil, Professor of New Infrastructure Development.
Speaking at a Guardian debate in Manchester on whether economic growth across the north depended on new transport investment, Prof Gil cited the example of Japan’s famous bullet trains in the 1960s and the boost that new high speed trains between Tokyo and Osaka gave to the economy.
“Construction of those trains cut the journey time in half and proved a significant catalyst for economic growth across the country. Given that Tokyo is very similar to London in terms of being a financial centre, and that Osaka is 250 miles away, it is an interesting parallel.”
Prof Gil said political and economic leaders needed to take a step back from the here and now and think about the long-term gain of a scheme such as HS2. “When I worked in the US at the turn of the millennium I remember how companies then were questioning whether to make massive investments in the digital infrastructure. It comes back to making those very long-term decisions. With HS2 we should not be thinking about how this will benefit us, but how it will benefit our grandchildren. Where does the north want to be in the next century?”
Prof Gil said linking economic growth back to transport investment was not a simple question. “There are many other factors that influence outcomes. Ultimately cost benefit analysis is informed by people’s beliefs so always becomes a political decision. Right now there is a lot of consensus that HS2 should go ahead and that should help to exploit the opportunities.”
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, told the debate at the Museum of Science and Industry that for the north to narrow the economic gap with rest of the UK it needed to make a strategic decision about the sort of transport investment it needed. “If we do not invest we will not accelerate the growth of the northern economy.”
He said the biggest single thing that transport did was to increase the availability of skilled labour. “How many people can get to a particular place and how quickly is a big measure of how successful that place is going to be. By improving the connectivity of northern cities we increase the availability of labour.”
Councillor Leese said given the uncertainty around Brexit now was not the time to cut back on infrastructure investment. “In any case, if you have well-planned and well executed transport investment it ultimately pays for itself through increased revenues back to the government.”
However recent reports have suggested the Department of Transport has asked for HS2 to be scaled back and that plans to open the first section of the line between London and Birmingham by 2026 are thought unrealistic. Phase two of the scheme – due to be completed by 2033 – between Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is £7bn over budget, according to the National Audit Office.