Opinion: HS2 – Just a token gesture to the North?
On June 23rd 2014, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne addressed a conference in the Manchester Science and industry Museum. In a grandiose speech given to industry leaders, he proposed widescale regeneration of the Northern industry and economy and backed a campaign to ‘power up the North’ – a soundbite largely emblematic of the Coalition era of Austerity and failed policy initiatives. A number of initiatives were launched to aid this policy, Manchester was given a shiny new ‘Boris-style’ mayor and wholescale devolution was introduced to the North, and even the creation of a government ministry dedicated to the policy was introduced by the Cameron government.
Nearly six years has passed since this landmark speech, and the government have little to show for all the words given by Osbourne. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is today associated with the remarkable failings of a Cameron government intended to deal with only the current crisis, designed to survive and continue its war of attrition against the state the Labour Party created. The fulcrum of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative was the HS2 rail line, a Y-shaped gift to Northern England that would power connectivity and boost the economic fortunes of a moribund and increasingly isolated North of England. But why have the current plans failed?
It could be argued that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was essentially side-tracked by recent political developments. The political change catalysed by the EU referendum and Brexit led to the deposition of the Cameron government and the installation of Theresa May as PM. May wished to move away from the ‘sound-bite politics’ reminiscent of the Cameron era and focus on policies.
This change in policy was aided by the resignation of one of the policies key proponents Lord O’Neill. The Brexit-centred premiership of Theresa May led to the proverbial consignation of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to the dustbin. Even as recently as last year, Osbourne warned of the government’s ‘lack of vision’ and called for ministerial action to prevent the North from falling behind economically. Whatever you may think of Osbourne’s ‘crocodile tears’, it is inarguable that the project championed by Osbourne suffered dramatically under the May premiership.
HS2 has also been an unmitigated disaster, the centrepiece of the new project, HS2 has suffered constant year-on-year upward cost revisions. Originally priced at £32.7 Billion, and independent review this month priced the project at £106 billion, a mammoth cost which actually puts the project on track to waste taxpayers’ money, with estimates of 80p of benefits for every £1 of spending. It’s also running ten years behind, which would likely represent a massive hit to the Northern economy and further increase the deficit present between the North and the South.
However, it is important to say that we could begin to see a turning point. One result of the sweeping election victory of Boris Johnson last month was the large amount of support he received from the ‘red wall’ in the Labour heartlands. It appears that the project could now be scrapped, with the large public cost being the casus belli against the project.
However, this decision could backfire, with Northern council leaders such as Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle Council, warning of the dangers of HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse being scrapped, suggesting that the North East risks becoming a ‘backwater’ as it fails to keep pace with the advancements in other areas of the country. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has also warned of the dangers of scrapping HS2, calling it a ‘penny pinching’ strategy while ‘London and the South gets whatever it wants’.
In all likelihood, it seems as though the government will decide on the future of HS2 and in essence the direction of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ this week. In spite of whether the government choose to continue the ailing project, or stop it dead in its tracks. One thing is glaringly obvious, the government inaction in the North and the North East could irrevocably damage the economic prospects of our area and reduce it to a sickly, ailing albatross around the neck of the country.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen as to whether the pledge set out by George Osbourne a distant six years ago will be honoured by a government that received such a large mandate from the North, or whether their commitment to reducing inequality nationwide were just fickle words designed to mislead us all.
Words: Evan Carroll