Is there light at the end of HS2 tun­nel?

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - PEOPLE AND PLACES - with Erica Neustadt of Change4 Chal­font

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.

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