HS2? I’d rather see more houses built instead
Bob Hunt is chief executive of Paradigm Mortgage Services
Despite a projected completion date almost two decades away, the press has been abuzz with lively debate about the latest high-speed railway plans unveiled recently. The HS2 network will supposedly slash journey times between London, Birmingham and the North, and while I’m all for anything that opens the door to greater prosperity in the North (as the marketing blurb purports), I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the project for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the time savings are relatively negligible. In an age of cheap flights and video-conferencing, is shaving twenty minutes off a rail trip from Birmingham to London or less than an hour off journeys from the capital to Scotland going to stimulate business development in the way the operators envisage? Hardly. Secondly, why the lax lead times? Contemporary red tape issues aside, it puts things into perspective when Brunel was able to construct the vast majority of the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol in five years, yet the timeframes being mentioned for HS2 are four times longer. Progress indeed.
These issues aside, the thing that sticks in my craw most about the proposals is the fact that the astronomic investment that would be required for the link could be much more wisely allocated elsewhere. A figure in excess of £33bn has been bandied about and that doesn’t include the inevitable overspend that is typical of British construction projects. Consider the housing supply crisis and how rectifying this would not only alleviate the social and logistical issues, but also create jobs and support local communities and the importance of slightly reducing rail journey times pales into insignificance.
The housing shortage is an issue that successive governments have ignored and that impacts us all in different ways. Perhaps the most pressing concern is that existing stock becomes overpriced when demand exceeds supply and by failing to address the problem, we are shutting thousands of potential owners out of the property market. Given the worries that I and many other parents have about how our own children will be able to get on to the ladder in future, how can the powers that be possibly justify prioritising a railway enhancement above safeguarding reasonable standards of living for future generations?
Common sense can sometimes be in short supply in the corridors of power, but setting aside the many other reasons why investing in expanding Britain’s housing stock is vital, there could even be cost savings to be made from doing so. There would obviously need to be upfront capital investment in such an undertaking, but when you think of the money being frittered away by local authorities housing families in bed and breakfast accommodation and the like and you realise that sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate.
If all this sounds a little harsh, I’m not usually one to stand in the way of progress and I don’t think the HS2 plans are a bad idea when viewed in isolation, but when you start to think about how the funds could be put to better use elsewhere it all feels a bit pie in the sky.