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GILLAN CHERYL NEWCheryl Gillan is the Member of Parliament for Chesham and Amersham. Follow Cheryl on Twitter.

Can it be
coincidental that the HS2 paving bill has been scheduled for the same day as
the spending review?

Yet the real,
far from ironic, question for Parliamentary colleagues – and their constituents
– to consider is how, and where, the £33 billion which has been reserved for
High Speed 2 could, and should, be spent to best advantage for the nation and
the taxpayer. People may think that HS2 does not affect them, but a project this
large, paid for out of tax payers’ money will starve other areas and
departments just by its sheer size.

The New
Economics Foundation (NEF) asked recently whether other investments in transport
could provide better value for money for taxpayers – and whether other
alternatives, which have not been explored by the Department for Transport,
could actually out-perform HS2 in achieving greater rail capacity, fuelling
economic growth, bridging the North-South divide and contributing to the green
agenda. 

Taking the
pot of money which the government initially has put down on the counter to pay
for HS2 – one single project – the NEF identified 88 individual projects which
would upgrade our transport system, but which would also mean the UK could roll
out fibre optic super-fast broadband across ten of our cities. Always presuming
the Government will finally get better broadband connections for our cities,
this money could be spent on those hard to reach areas and so even out the rural/city
divide as well as the North/South differences.


In making
the business case for HS2 (which is a poor one) the Department for Transport
might think people don’t work on trains, but this kind of investment would
actually help people trying to work in offices, shops, factories, distribution
centres (not to mention the home!) and struggling with connectivity. The
benefits would spread across the public and private sectors alike.

All across
the UK, the development of technological links, broadband, of 4G and then 5G,
gives us the chance to carry data to people rather than people always
travelling into necessarily limited places. 
We carry research centres and libraries in our mobiles. Cinemas across
the UK stream in live theatre, opera performances and concerts, not only from
London, but from across the globe.

What the NEF
report showed was by way of an example as to what we could get for £33bn and regional
rail, mass transit systems, upgrades for the West Coast and the East Coast Main
Lines could all be brought in for the same cost as HS2.  Soon after the NEF published its assessment,
news came describing the proposed HS2 hub in West London as “another Canary
Wharf”.  While the economy might need
more Canary Wharves, should they, must they, have a London postcode, if the
object is to rebalance between North and South?

The
government has been talking about North and South – the title, we should
recall, of a nineteenth century novel – but maybe we should at last widen
the debate, including East and West, East Anglia to Wales, North East England
to the West Country.  What benefits does
HS2 and ‘the Canary Wharf of West London’ bring to those areas?

None of the
advances in technology would have seemed possible only a few years ago, and if
HS2 had been started 30 years ago it may well have been a viable project. Now,
in the timescale which is envisaged for the entire HS2 project, I think we are
building a shiny new railway when what we should be doing is investing in new
technology, improving local and existing transport systems and not spending a
fortune on what could turn out to be the biggest White Elephant of all time –
coincidentally the symbol adopted by people opposing this project.

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