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The Conservative Party’s decisive 2019 election victory was due, in large part, to hoovering up vast swathes of the historically Labour-voting North and Midlands. 

The Government now has a unique opportunity, and incentive, to deliver a genuinely ‘one-nation’ agenda. Success will hinge on delivering noticeable, material improvement to those ‘left behind’ regions in question. A large part of that will depend on providing long overdue investment in transport, particularly rail infrastructure. Proceeding with HS2 will not deliver this and will be seen as a historic mistake. 

How to make tangible improvements to our national rail infrastructure is not by better connecting Manchester or Birmingham to London, nor is it necessarily by better connecting those major northern metropolises. The way to make such a difference is by improving connectivity between cities and their commuter peripheries all over the UK: the towns, medium and rural population centres where rail infrastructure is inadequate or lacking entirely; and to better connect these more peripheral regions with one another independent of major metropolitan routes.

HS2 will have little effect on such endemic infrastructural issues. Indeed, as Ross Clark notes, all “HS2 does is link together all the places that are doing well while doing nothing to link them up with the places that are doing badly”. It will do little for under-serviced cities like Leicester; or deprived towns like Wisbech, where inadequate rail infrastructure is inhibiting development. Even the towns and areas that will accommodate HS2 track, the majority will not get a station to match.

With marginal nationwide benefits, the entire population will nevertheless have to fork out an estimated £108 billion, up from £33 billion, to pay for it. Even those set to benefit shall have to wait upwards of a decade for the privilege. Passengers hoping to travel from Manchester or Leeds even longer, until 2040 – assuming the lines beyond Birmingham ever materialise, which is by no means assured. We have to ask whether such vast spending on a single line is justified when our existing routes are in such dire need of attention. 

Alternatives could include, for example, a full reversal of the infamous Beeching cuts, rather than the Government’s current paltry commitment of £500m simply to fund feasibility studies of routes that could be restored. The cuts saw the closure of 8,000 miles of track and 3,700 stations between 1950 and 1980. If anything is responsible for ‘leaving behind’ vast swathes of the country, placing them in a state of environmentally destructive and socially alienating car dependence, it was this.  

Reinstating the 7-mile Bristol to Portishead line or the 21-mile Leamside line in the North-East may not be as glamorous, or seem as revolutionary as HS2, but most people don’t need glamour, only to get to work. Solving a hundred small problems is sometimes more revolutionary than any one silver bullet train. Besides, what is a better example of one-nation conservatism than putting back what was destroyed, all over the nation?

The fundamental issue of HS2 is not only that its benefits will be felt by few; its apparently bottomless appetite will swallow up so much finite investment and political will that other, more deserving projects in historically neglected areas will lose out. Rather than continue where we were wrong to start, it would be prudent to scrap HS2 and redirect its massive pot of gold elsewhere.

Recent years have only made voters more sceptical of political promises. If this government is serious about consolidating support amongst its newly acquired voters, it needs to provide more than the promise of improvement in twenty years’ time – it must deliver it now. Once Brexit is history, those who lent the Conservatives their vote last year, many for the first time, are unlikely to do so again unless given a good reason.

Nationwide investment in railway infrastructure can be this reason and the locomotive of a truly ‘one-nation’ conservatism. HS2, however, is not the answer. It will continue the tale of The Two Nations, unabridged.

Stuart is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.