Scrapping HS2’s eastern leg would be a betrayal of the communities there
Eastern leg regions are home to 23 per cent of England’s population but 42 per cent of its social deprivation cold spots: as we look beyond the pandemic, we must ensure HS2 in delivered in full to bring opportunities to left behind areas
Seismic events change our outlook. We emerge with a new perspective, one that influences our decision-making and sharpens our priorities. After the Second World War, we reacted to the atmosphere of unity, selfless service and sacrifice with the creation of the welfare state. This pandemic is the biggest challenge we’ve faced since, and this time around it’s the irrefutable power of science and the enduring social and economic inequalities in our society that have hit home the hardest. We must again stand and take notice. We must commit to HS2, a project that will bridge the gaps between our communities and establish the UK as a country that is serious about tackling climate change.
HS2 is the government’s opportunity to truly “build back better” post-Covid-19. The need for skilled employment, apprenticeships and regeneration is nowhere more apparent than along HS2’s eastern leg, which will run from Birmingham to Toton in the East Midlands, Chesterfield, Sheffield and Leeds. As well as suffering from lower levels of productivity (-22 per cent), and less transport investment per head than the UK average (-33 per cent), eastern leg communities also perform significantly worse than their counterparts along HS2’s western leg from Birmingham to Crewe and Manchester.
Eastern leg regions are home to 23 per cent of England’s population but 42 per cent of its social deprivation cold spots; children born poor are more likely to stay poor, and these areas of deprivation are highly correlated with those experiencing transport poverty. Despite the obvious need for investment the eastern leg is under threat. To abandon it would be unforgiveable; it must go ahead.
Many question how a new railway will benefit struggling households, so I want to make this crystal clear. HS2 will benefit millions of people in the communities it serves, even those who never set foot on a high-speed train. It will create thousands of apprenticeships for young people and skilled jobs for talented employees – jobs that keep them and their success within left-behind areas. There are ambitious plans to regenerate swathes of land surrounding the new HS2 stations. At Toton, a site the size of three Olympic Parks will be turned into new homes and leisure facilities, as well as a high-tech innovation campus and world-leading centre for clean energy generation. The connectivity HS2 brings is the catalyst that will secure the private sector investment needed to turn these ambitions into reality.
Then there are the transport benefits. A proper, functioning high speed rail network is essential if we’re to hit our 2050 zero-carbon target. Faster, long distance connectivity can all but eliminate the need for domestic air travel, and provide a greener alternative to intercity car trips. Crucially, HS2 will also create a wealth of capacity on the existing railway, taking longer-distance traffic on to the high-speed line to create more space for shorter commuter services and rail freight. Every year, a full HS2 network will provide space for over 2 million lorries’ worth of cargo to be moved off roads and on to rail: journeys that produce 78 per cent less CO2. Yes, the pandemic has caused a short-term decline in travel, but we will return to our lives, and when we do, we must get more people onto our railways. Now just one in five intercity journeys is made by rail – that’s nowhere near enough.
As we look towards a future beyond Covid-19, we must take action to protect our planet and level the playing field for those the pandemic has hit the hardest. That means committing to the whole of HS2, including the eastern leg, so we can emerge wiser, smarter and greener than before.
Lilian Greenwood is Labour MP for Nottingham South