HS2 Is In Political Peril: Does It Matter To Birmingham Real Estate?
Potential candidates to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party have failed to give the HS2 high-speed train link to Birmingham a ringing endorsement.
Meanwhile opinion polls show hostility to the scheme in the West Midlands and in every English region except London. Is now the time for the Birmingham property business to fight for HS2? Or is it the time to stop flogging a dying horse?
Everything in the UK feels very binary just now. Whatever the subject, you are either very much for or immovably against, whilst the middle ground shrinks every day. HS2, the £56B high-speed train project to link London to the North via Birmingham, is increasingly falling into this binary trap.
Seven years after the rail project was first announced it is still stuck in a siding. Under many of the potential new leaders of the Conservative Party (and hence, new Prime Ministers), it could be moved from the siding to the scrap yard.
This week potential contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party began to set out their stalls, and their tepid commitment to HS2 was conspicuous.
At an event organised by the Telegraph, four of five leadership contenders declined to come to the rescue of HS2. James Cleverly alone said the government should deliver on its promise. Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Liz Truss both suggested scrapping it.
The response from politicians matches an increasingly chilly public mood. A YouGov opinion poll suggested that nationwide, the HS2 line was opposed by 40% of voters, with 32% in favour. Those who hoped the Midlands would see the advantages of HS2 will have been disappointed to note that the region was even more firmly opposed to HS2 than everywhere else, with 46% against and just 30% in favour.
Given the drip-drip of unhelpful news on rising cost projections of £100B or more, body-blows like the loss of HS2's chairman, Sir Terry Morgan, and scepticism from ministers including, it has been reported, the Transport Secretary, HS2 begins to feel vulnerable.
This is potentially alarming in Birmingham, where HS2 is delivering real jobs, many of them connected with building the project. Birmingham's office property market is already feeling the benefit.
So is this the time for the Birmingham property industry to go on the offensive, and fight for a project many believe will be a massive boost to the regional economy? Bisnow spoke to two Birmingham property professionals with very different answers.
David Smeeton is senior director and head of investment at Cushman & Wakefield in Birmingham and he is a fan of HS2. Asked if now is the time to start seriously campaigning for HS2, Smeeton revealed his upbeat approach.
“I’m not sure it’s time to start campaigning for HS2 as work is ongoing and the runners and riders for the Tory leadership have only just started," he said. "Andy Street [West Midlands Metro mayor] and Paul Faulkner [chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce] amongst others are major supporters and very vocal about the vital nature of the route. As far as I can tell it’s coming to Birmingham — the question mark is how much further it will go. Perhaps the North West need to start the campaigning.
“HS2 is a must have. Upgrades are hopeless on the existing network and would take forever to be meaningful. HS2 opens up capacity on the rest of the network which is simply overloaded at the moment. Plus the movement of freight is never really discussed: more freight equals less road haulage.”
Smeeton said it might have been easier to sell HS2 if capacity issues had been emphasised and the speed played down.
Nick Wint is a partner at the Birmingham office of surveyors Johnson Fellows, and is not watching HS2’s travails with a sense of anxiety. Rather the reverse. Wint thinks inter- and intra-regional connections are more important than another link to London, and fears that Birmingham will lose, rather than gain, from HS2.
“By connecting London to Birmingham HS2 will create a ‘brain drain’ in my view and simply make it easier to commute to London rather than the other way round," he said. "I have not yet seen any marketing campaign for HS2 that says ‘get to Birmingham or Manchester quicker’. It’s all focused around getting to London faster.
“The way IT is changing at such a rapid pace, the need to travel to meetings will in my view diminish and the ability to video conference will become greater given everyone is now so time poor and cost-conscious.”
According to Wint the HS2 project, born under different political stars in 2012, has outlived its era.
“The cost of building HS2 simply cannot be justified," he said. "HS1 was sold at a loss and the fact that this whole project was borne out of a dream to network our system with Europe’s high-speed network now looks like a folly in light of Brexit.
“And I don’t see the time savings occurring in reality as such a high-profile project will need additional security checks at the station which will undoubtedly slow total journey times. The cost of travelling on HS2 will, I believe, be simply too expensive — not only for the average person but also for many businesses,” Wint said.
Campaigners for HS2, including regional transport body Midlands Connect, insist the scheme is vital, and are concentrating their efforts on persuading MPs to stick with the project.
They are skilled lobbyists and have a case to make: whether they can persuade enough of the right people in the short window of opportunity open to them is far from clear.