I am implacably opposed to HS2, which is not only an horrifically expensive waste of taxpayers’ money, but also fails to achieve the economic objectives that were set for it: that is, to close the north-south labour productivity gap.
As I’ve noted before, the primary way by which transport networks can achieve that is through labour market agglomeration. By that, I mean increasing the pool of people capable of working together, which allows better sorting of people into jobs that they are best-suited to and also to clustering of businesses (and other entities) to benefit from localised spill-over effects.
The problem of productivity in the North is not that productivity is low in city centres, but that a lot of towns that surround the city centres have low productivity. Leeds has the highest productivity of any part of West Yorkshire, Sheffield has the highest productivity of any part of South Yorkshire, and so on.
Instead of connections between city centres, it needs commuter rail of the sort that London has. To get to Manchester city centre, it takes 40 minutes from Bolton (10 miles away), 60 minutes from Burnley (21 miles away), and 75 minutes from Blackburn (21 miles away).
A good way of visualising this is a map of the Travel To Work areas. The way ONS designs them is a bit boring, but basically, they represent individualised labour markets.
Note how the ones in the south east and south Midlands are all – especially London – pretty large: showing that people often commute quite large distances, facilitated by excellent transport links.
By comparison, note how the ones in the north are much smaller (and the South West – 15 across fewer than two million people in Devon and Cornwall! – but that’s a matter for another day). Each Metropolitan Borough of West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire is essentially its own labour market. Blackpool – with the lowest labour productivity in the country – is its own labour market: cut off from Lancaster or Preston. Blackburn and Burnley – with those terrible links to nearby Manchester – are their own labour markets.
So if you’re an employer looking to start a business there, you can scour the skillsets of the 100,000 people that live in Burnley and Nelson, but that’s it. As a result, you don’t have the breadth to match skillsets to job opportunities. If you have a specific skill requirement, you will have fewer options, meaning higher costs as you fit square pegs into round holes.
As such, investments don’t take place there and skills aren’t used optimally there. This ultimately people earn less than they would do otherwise.
So what does this mean for HS3? Well, for starters, don’t call it HS3 – it shouldn’t be a high-speed line skipping past the suburbs and small towns (and with any luck, HS2 won’t have happened, so skipping to 3 seems premature!).
HS3 should instead, to use another example, be Crossrail for the North. Or, rather, Crossrails, plural. Manchester needs one and Leeds/Bradford needs one and Sheffield needs one. Even with the current upgrades to the Ribble Valley line, it won’t be viable for thousands of people a day to commute from Blackburn to Manchester.
All of this can be done for a fraction of the cost of a high-speed railway between Liverpool and Hull: an idea modelled on the mistakes of HS2, and not a solution to the North’s transport crisis.
For more about my campaign against HS2, click here.