This week, the government is to publish its response to the HS2 consultees’ submissions. It will likely include further proposals for extending the rail lines. But here are some statistics for our part of the north: the daily car trips to work across Lancashire and Yorkshire, that is, averages, are 274 and 495, respectively, and by 2030 they are projected to rise to 310 and 565, for a total increase of 8%, more than 10 times the predicted rise in the national average. A few hundred miles of the Pennines and the Tees Valley could be swamped by these extra journeys by 2050.
Our towns and cities were built long ago and depend on connecting people to work. Can a highway-building machine, popularised by the politics of its foundations in the decade after the second world war, decently navigate this tricky detour? Or will our little cul-de-sacs suffer in the process?
At most 15% of the geography is at risk of being overrun by expressways
It might be tempting to look away now – think of all those businesses and households that will be dislocated; think of those now-legendary tensions. But it is time to put aside the nationalism of some commentators and consider the possible unintended consequences. Though I am in favour of leaving the EU, I hope this is not the moment to abandon Manchester to the whims of our European neighbours.
Sites for potentially risky road-building schemes are listed in red at the Omicron solar farm. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock
But first we must analyse what this new infrastructure will cost and how it will be funded. At most 15% of the geography is at risk of being overrun by expressways, according to the government’s own estimates. And much has been achieved since HS2 was started. It is said (by a new government minister) that doing nothing is cheap. True. Does this mean we can wall ourselves off from pollution and road traffic? The answer is no. We are climate change refugees to a new material world.
Removal of the test to calculate whether road transport contributes to climate change can’t be considered even as an excuse. This is a political imperative and needs to be understood. What does it mean for planning when there is no trigger to require cities such as Leeds and Newcastle to have an overriding social and economic imperative?
The release of the government’s response will also provide more details of how it will pay for its plans. The small print is likely to show that some of the projects under consideration will cost more to build than they receive in revenue from tolls.
We can’t make the road expressway to nowhere work | Oliver Milman Read more
The preoccupation with HS2 is understandable – the country is at risk. But the insanity of spending billions on a brand new infrastructure project based on policy decisions made and delivered decades ago is not.
The project is necessary and an emergency response to inter-regional disparities in inter-regional development. But that is all. New barriers have been brought in, necessitating new infrastructure, but without any anticipated economic benefit – a zero-sum game.
The government will no doubt pay lip service to promising to pay for these projects from passenger fare subsidies to HS2, and to the extent the latter subsidy actually works, it is not at all clear how this will work in practice and how this money is actually going to be spent.
If, as most forecasters predict, emissions rise by 1.5C, this infrastructure will need to be affordable by 2050. That means fares will need to rise to $35 a month in 2030, the level of modern car taxes in London, and that is if GDP rises by 3%.
Despite the frequency of these media headlines, the government’s list of proposed road and rail projects is not all the same thing.