Public investment: jobs created, facilities improved, recession tackled- surely it’s no bad thing. It’s the antidote to austerity we’ve all pleaded for. As Keynes once said, “the government should pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up”. So, whether its high speed rail or hole digging, public investment in any shape or form is the best way to get us out of this mess – surely? Coming from Leeds, that was my opinion of HS2 – initially.
The second phase of High Speed Two, expected to be constructed by 2033, will branch out to northern cities such as Manchester and Sheffield – and yes, Leeds. This will of course benefit long-distance commuters; people in professional, middle class jobs who’ll find the length of their journey times cut.
It will not, however, immediately benefit those northern towns and cities still ruined by decades of deindustrialisation. Yet again, this Tory-led government, and sadly the Labour party, have their priorities all wrong.
It is essential that the next Labour government finds more relevant ways to invest in the north. Pre-Thatcher, northern cities were a hub of manufacturing and engineering from both sides of the Pennines to the dockyards of Tyneside and Liverpool. Over the last few decades, however, whole communities have been destroyed by deindustrialisation leaving generations of unemployment and underemployment. For these communities, HS2 bears no immediate importance; our bread and butter issues would better be solved by building affordable and green social housing.
Certainly, we should aim to match the rail standards enjoyed in other European countries – but investing in high speed rail links alone is not a guarantee of economic success. Spain has a stronger network than Germany, after all. It is no surprise to any of us that there are parts of the UK, especially near planned HS2 stations, that are in dire straits. Is it right that we should juxtapose these expensive, high tech trains with communities where people will probably never afford a trip to London?
Our first priority should be public investment – but in manufacturing, social housing and local transport links. What the Labour party needs to fight for is not austerity-lite, but bold projects that are essential to get the north, and indeed the whole country, back on its feet. Maybe then, when people are in decent employment, with money in their pockets – not to mention when fares are back at affordable levels – it will be time to start thinking about high speed rail.