Is there light at the end of HS2 tunnel?
WHAT an interesting governmental appointment; Jim O’Neill has been given a peerage and appointed a minister to the Treasury with a brief to drive forward devolution to cities outside London.
Jim O’Neill is a man to watch, although till very recently, I knew little about him. Born near Stockport, educated at state schools and regional universities (no gilded Eton and Oxford pathway for him), he rose to be chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and has led the City Growth Commission, an independent enquiry into how UK cities, particularly in the North, can be empowered to develop their economies.
Delivering his report for the Commission, O’Neill recommended devolving decision-making from London to regional cities or ‘metros’, a review of future technological needs and accelerated development of infrastructure between business centres in the region.
So far, ok, quite interesting, for someone like me, in the leafy springtime of South Bucks. But this is what shoots him into the stratosphere of my attention – he is an HS2 sceptic.
Why on earth is a government which has persisted with such an unpopular project despite many economic and environmental counter arguments, high speeding him (sorry) into a ministerial post?
Being less London-centric than most in the Westminster village, Jim O’Neill is looking at HS2 from the other end of the telescope and asks this question: if cities in the north of England were devolved and their civic leaders given a budget of 50 billion smackers – would they decide to blow it on a link to London or would they decide to improve regional transport links? He reckons the latter: fast travel to London is nice, but Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds really need to be connected by fast train services to create a ‘powerhouse’ business hub in the North and kickstart regional regeneration.
During a speech in Manchester on May 14, Chancellor George Osborne, when announcing O’Neill’s appointment, talked about the growth of the Northern economy and his two pronged approach of devolution and upgrading infrastructure. And get this - not once did he mention HS2.
Could it possibly be that the worm has turned? Is the government working quietly towards a u-turn, which it can rationalise as suggested by a top flight academic economist and so justify all the money poured into the project so far?
In short, is Jim O’Neill the light at the end of the HS2 tunnel? We await developments.