Remote working shows HS2 is not the answer – digital investment is
It has been six years since George Osborne made his Northern Powerhouse speech – promising to create a better-connected cluster of Northern cities to counterbalance the dominating economic power of London and hailing HS2 as “the most important investment in the north for a century”.
The ambition of today remains unchanged. The Prime Minister’s “levelling up” agenda is Northern Powerhouse rebranded, a recognition that the same modern and globalised economy that has propelled London forward has not been equally distributed around the country.
HS2 has been a point of political and economic contention for over a decade. Predicted costs have rocketed – the latest estimate is a staggering £106bn – and the justification for the project has been steadily in decline.
First proposed in 2009, HS2 is an infrastructure project that was designed to address accessibility, connectivity and was set to underpin a new Northern economy.
In 2020, where we have all been quick to embrace remote working, a multibillion-pound train line is not the answer. References to accessibility, connectivity and economic success can now only link to digital.
HS2 promised to link together the Northern cities, but it’s hard to see the railway as anything more than a means to get commuters from the North into the capital faster.
This operates on entirely the wrong premise – now more than ever.
Cities in the North and the Midlands should not resort to becoming commuter towns. Instead, these areas need to be invested in, so that they can grow digital economies in their own right.
As millions of people across the country are working remotely, we’ve fast come to a collective realisation that we do not need to be together in order to work together.
Thanks to broadband and Wi-Fi, connectivity has grown by leaps and bounds. We don’t need an office environment to work collaboratively or efficiently.
The last thing anyone needs is a transport system that funnels even more people into an already overcrowded city.
After so many years of campaigning, it will be hard for the Government to now backtrack on HS2. But. at a time when our public purse is stretched, it would be the right decision to forget the project altogether and redirect funds where they will make an immediate impact – combating digital poverty.
Bridging the digital divide by ensuring every child and adult in the UK has equal opportunity to engage with digital services would do more for our economy in the long run than any railway ever could.
The digital divide has long been a concern – but the current crisis means there is more at stake than ever. There are 1.9m households with no access to the internet. This is for a plethora of reasons – from the lack of infrastructure in rural areas to people not being able to afford the monthly costs.
And now Covid-19 has worryingly exposed a new reality in digital poverty. As school lessons have moved online, Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh has reported there are 700,000 disadvantaged children without the technology needed to study online at home. It is absurd that in this digital era, fundamental education can be stalled due to a lack of connectivity. For young people all across the country, a laptop or tablet is not an accessory; it is the gateway into the economy.
After so many years of consultation, it will be difficult for the Government to reverse its decision on HS2. But we are living in a different time. The Government needs to move on from the HS2 fiasco and create a strategy whereby every individual in the UK has a right to 5G and sufficient Wi-Fi.
According to the ONS, one in 10 people do not have access to the internet – and with economic struggles ahead, this could decrease further, as families struggle to pay bills. It is imperative everyone has affordable and reliable digital access.
We’ve become accustomed to many U-turns from the Government, and HS2 should be next.
We have funds at our disposal, which have the potential to transform our economy, boost regional development and help tackle digital poverty. It’s not a question of if, but when. We can either move ahead with the time, or invest in outdated infrastructure. There is only one right answer.
‘Ensuring everyone has equal opportunity to engage with digital services would do more for our economy than any railway’