HS2 has been formally given the green light by the Government to proceed with building the multibillion-pound railway line between Birmingham and London. The project started in 2009 and has since been a key point of controversy across the midlands. The fear of steep costs and environmental impact have been at the forefront of the debate for 11 years. However, through the other side of the pandemic, has the argument reach its breaking point?
There is much concern that the financial state of the UK is an unprecedented modern recession with a GDP decline of 9.8%; the sharpest decrease since 1948. It begs the question whether the expense of HS2 would be more logically spent elsewhere in the economy? The rise in criticism for the project has mirrored the rise in estimated costs for the project, with figures more than doubling since it was first proposed to Parliament. Now expected to cost £106bn and phase one completion not expected until at least 2041, the question remains; can our post-pandemic economy handle such a huge investment with profits so far from reach?
The project has also been under huge environmental backlash as a result of its devastating impact on the countryside. Consisting of a largely rural route the railway is expected to destroy more than 130 protected wildlife sites and over 50 ancient woodlands. The increase in environmental awareness over the last decade has forced HS2 to plant up to 7 million trees and shrubs along the route creating what they have labelled a ‘Green Corridor’, which will not only meet the number of habitats destroyed but mark a 30% increase. However, wildlife groups have pointed out that to simply replant greenery alongside the track and expect it to compensate for what it has destroyed is extremely naive. Ecosystems take decades to evolve and develop into suitable environments for wildlife and that doesn’t happen adjacent to a highspeed railway line. Onlookers, living near areas where the construction has already begun have also been quick to note that once the saplings have been planted and their quota filled, the preservation and upkeep of the ‘Green Corridor’ has been next to none, with many dying early on. Therefore, despite developer’s conscious effort to replant as much as it destroys, it is unlikely that such precautions will ever replace the nature it has taken away.
So how are the government justifying this multi-billion project? Alongside creating around 22,000 thousand jobs whilst in construction of phase one, HS2 is expected to shorten times between the commute from Birmingham to London by 28 minutes. Whilst this might not seem like a huge change, it aims to boost jobs between the two cities and encourage businesses to move north. In time this will hopefully level the north-south economic divide. But critics have argued that rather than expanding Birmingham’s economy, the route will simply bring more wealth to the country’s capital, further enforcing the economic imbalance between north and south. However, this route is only the small picture. It is part of a much bigger scheme to create similar railways from Birmingham northwards with the goal of connecting the north and south with highspeed rail links. The economic implications of this must not be downplayed with the potential for mass economic growth in the long term.
Is a multibillion commute system really an informed financial risk to be taking at a time when our governments stay at home policy has displayed the country’s ability to work from home?
Before the pandemic only around 1.7million people worked from home but in the last year that has multiplied to 20 million. The result was a 90% decrease in rail travel. The money saved by businesses no longer having to rent large offices for employees, or the beneficial impact on families with working parents, causes doubt as to whether the commute will ever regain its pre-Covid numbers.
Recently, the government has received severe backlash for its pitiful 1% increase in nurses’ salaries, despite being hailed as the nation’s heroes throughout the pandemic. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng attributed this meagre increase to the fact that the “whole economy has been under pressure”. So, should the £109billion therefore be redistributed to more urgent areas of the British economy?