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Cheryl Gillan MP: Here are just some of the 80-plus ways in which HS2's £33 billion could better be spent

GILLAN CHERYL NEWCheryl Gillan is the Member of Parliament for Chesham and Amersham. Follow Cheryl on Twitter.

Can it be coincidental that the HS2 paving bill has been scheduled for the same day as the spending review?

Yet the real, far from ironic, question for Parliamentary colleagues – and their constituents – to consider is how, and where, the £33 billion which has been reserved for High Speed 2 could, and should, be spent to best advantage for the nation and the taxpayer. People may think that HS2 does not affect them, but a project this large, paid for out of tax payers’ money will starve other areas and departments just by its sheer size.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) asked recently whether other investments in transport could provide better value for money for taxpayers – and whether other alternatives, which have not been explored by the Department for Transport, could actually out-perform HS2 in achieving greater rail capacity, fuelling economic growth, bridging the North-South divide and contributing to the green agenda. 

Taking the pot of money which the government initially has put down on the counter to pay for HS2 – one single project – the NEF identified 88 individual projects which would upgrade our transport system, but which would also mean the UK could roll out fibre optic super-fast broadband across ten of our cities. Always presuming the Government will finally get better broadband connections for our cities, this money could be spent on those hard to reach areas and so even out the rural/city divide as well as the North/South differences.

In making the business case for HS2 (which is a poor one) the Department for Transport might think people don’t work on trains, but this kind of investment would actually help people trying to work in offices, shops, factories, distribution centres (not to mention the home!) and struggling with connectivity. The benefits would spread across the public and private sectors alike.

All across the UK, the development of technological links, broadband, of 4G and then 5G, gives us the chance to carry data to people rather than people always travelling into necessarily limited places.  We carry research centres and libraries in our mobiles. Cinemas across the UK stream in live theatre, opera performances and concerts, not only from London, but from across the globe.

What the NEF report showed was by way of an example as to what we could get for £33bn and regional rail, mass transit systems, upgrades for the West Coast and the East Coast Main Lines could all be brought in for the same cost as HS2.  Soon after the NEF published its assessment, news came describing the proposed HS2 hub in West London as “another Canary Wharf”.  While the economy might need more Canary Wharves, should they, must they, have a London postcode, if the object is to rebalance between North and South?

The government has been talking about North and South – the title, we should recall, of a nineteenth century novel – but maybe we should at last widen the debate, including East and West, East Anglia to Wales, North East England to the West Country.  What benefits does HS2 and ‘the Canary Wharf of West London’ bring to those areas?

None of the advances in technology would have seemed possible only a few years ago, and if HS2 had been started 30 years ago it may well have been a viable project. Now, in the timescale which is envisaged for the entire HS2 project, I think we are building a shiny new railway when what we should be doing is investing in new technology, improving local and existing transport systems and not spending a fortune on what could turn out to be the biggest White Elephant of all time – coincidentally the symbol adopted by people opposing this project.


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