Definition of boondoggle for those unfamiliar:
“A boondoggle is a project that is considered a useless waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy motivations”
The debate over High Speed Two appears to have gathered pace over recent weeks. A rapid train link between London and Birmingham – eventually to Manchester and Leeds – would undoubtedly have some economic benefits, but would they justify the £50bn price tag? Is this really the best use of public money at a time of austerity?
Consultants and economists can draw up business cases, but there will always be some assumptions that can be challenged. Ultimately for any significant piece of infrastructure the benefits are so long-term and so widely distributed that any evidence will necessarily be incomplete or flawed.
From the point of view of business leaders in Birmingham, the link would be a huge boost to its economy, bringing it into the affluent south east. The assumption is that it would bring back office requirements, particularly in the area around the new station at Curzon Street. The area around the M42 corridor – arguably the most affluent in the Midlands – would also benefit hugely.
The airport could be as little as 36 minutes from Euston, making it an attractive option for some Londoners. If – in tandem with runway extensions – more flights were to use the airport, it would make locating there an extremely viable option for many businesses.
The argument against this revolves around displacement. This might benefit Birmingham and Solihull, but if the economic activity is merely displaced from elsewhere in the country, then the net benefit for UK plc is zero.
The missing point here is that by concentrating economic activity in particular places – whether city centres or out of town hotspots – businesses gain all sorts of benefits from shared recruitment pools and the informal exchange of ideas. If the link were to enable a new business cluster to develop around either new station, then the benefits would be significant.
A further issue is that transport links between weaker and stronger cities (economically speaking) tend to benefit the latter. Why would a company have an office in Birmingham when they could be there in under 40 minutes by train from Euston? Why not simply ask your existing staff to commute to London instead?
Manchester has a slightly larger business base and office stock than Birmingham, and has had higher take-up over the past few years. Arguably this is partly because it can act as a genuine regional capital as it is further from London. Bringing it within easier reach of the capital might actually weaken this.
This might be true if the capital were not an expensive location for business or residential space. My feeling is that the link would actually provide a safety valve for the high-pressure London market and provide businesses with much-needed good value expansion space – an opportunity they would grasp.
Perhaps the best argument against High Speed Two is that the money could be used more profitably on other schemes. It is, perhaps, harder to argue against the idea that cities such as Leeds and Birmingham might be more affluent if they had rapid transport systems, or that London’s outer suburbs might be more reasonable locations for business if commuter services were improved.