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There is a lesson in the HS2 saga

Tony Travers
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The debate about High Speed 2 intensified (again) this week with the government’s publication of The Strategic Case for HS2, a report justifying the proposed railway because of its economic benefits and the increase in passenger capacity between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

The debate about High Speed 2 intensified (again) this week with the government’s publication of The Strategic Case for HS2, a report justifying the proposed railway because of its economic benefits and the increase in passenger capacity between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

It was Labour that originally championed the new north-south ‘TGV’, although its current leadership has gone cool on the project as the cost has escalated.

David Cameron’s government have been strong supporters, though many shire Tories living along the route through the Chilterns, notably in Buckinghamshire, are bitter opponents. The Treasury, which must be horrified at the cost risks, have been kept quiet.

The government has few friends. As a consequence it has embraced supportive councils and their leaders. The HS2 ‘task force’ assembled to “unlock the full economic potential” of the new railway relies heavily on local authority input. Sir Howard Bernstein (Manchester), Sir Albert Bore (Birmingham), Julie Dore (Sheffield), Matthew Colledge (Trafford) and Neale Coleman (London) have been enlisted to help strengthen the case.

And rightly so. Without local government support, particularly from cities in the Midlands and the north, HS2 would surely die. Ministers need the skills of metropolitan councils to strengthen city centre economies and kick-start regeneration. HS2 has been sold, in part, as a way of reducing disparities between the south-east and the rest of the UK. Long-term investment in the transport systems of Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds should be a national priority.

Despite all the expertise and resources at the core of government, it is in town halls where capacity to deliver is most powerful. It is for this reason, among others, that so much local talent is now needed to support HS2. Devolving responsibility for more resource-raising and investment to city regional level would benefit the whole economy.

City regions need the capacity to deliver better transport links. At present, virtually every decision about major road, tram and rail systems is made at the centre. More infrastructure would be delivered more efficiently if councils (and LEPs) had greater freedom. There is a lesson for Whitehall in the HS2 saga.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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