Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Photo: Stefano Maffei
In January, transport secretary Justine Greening announced that the 250 mph HS2 high speed rail link between London and Birmingham, to be extended later to Manchester and Leeds, was to go ahead. Maria Eagle, the shadow transport minister, had some reservations, but nonetheless supported the government.
This cross-party consensus reflects the belief that HS2 will solve the apparent capacity problems on our inter-city rail routes and bring jobs and regeneration to the regions, helping to bridge the north-south divide. Greening’s predecessor as transport secretary, Philip Hammond, said a high speed rail network would have a ‘transformational’ impact and ‘change the social and economic geography of Britain’. And if other European countries are pressing ahead with high speed rail, how can the UK not do so? If Frère Jacques has fast trains, they argue, we must have a faster one.
While the pro-HS2 lobby asserts it will support huge numbers of jobs, in fact the government only claims it will create 40,000, at a cost of £17 billion. Of these, a quarter would be in construction. Of the remaining 30,000, more than two thirds will be in London, less than a third in Birmingham, and many of them would not be new jobs but relocations from elsewhere in the region. This is not surprising – overwhelming research evidence shows that the biggest and strongest city will be the major beneficiary of new transport links. So much for reducing the north-south divide.
Nor does HS2 have much in the way of green credentials. The government can only claim vaguely that it would be no more carbon intensive over its lifetime than alternatives. This is because its very high speed means it uses a lot of energy. It could take some journeys off roads, but it will also stimulate new travel, including long road journeys to widely-spaced stations. Extending the network to the north of England and Scotland could cut a few internal flights, but the runway slots released would be taken up by long-haul flights, increasing carbon emissions.
The demand projections used by HS2 also seriously overstate future inter-city traffic. Improvements to the existing network, especially the West Coast Main Line, could deal with likely demand increases much more quickly and at a fraction of the cost. And that assumes that we should be blindly catering for demand, rather than controlling it.
So the claims for HS2 are make-believe. Hammond is right that HS2 would have a transformational effect – just not of the kind he suggests. High speed rail would indeed create a new economic geography, accentuating the inequalities of the neoliberal market economy. With stations only for London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham/Derby, South Yorkshire and Leeds, it would tie together major cities (which is why Labour’s big city barons like it) but create a second tier of towns served by fewer and slower trains, and marginalise whole regions – the south and south west, Wales, East Anglia – that the proposed network ignores.
This new neoliberal map of Britain, floating free of the places where most of us live and work, and ‘compressing both space and time’, in David Harvey’s phrase, would at the same time accentuate social disparities. The most affluent 20 per cent of the population make nearly half of all long distance rail journeys. As Hammond admitted in a rare moment of realism, HS2 will be a ‘rich man’s toy’. And the government’s willingness to adopt from Labour a route that slices through a clutch of Conservative constituencies testifies to the hegemony of post-Thatcherite neoliberal conservatism over the old ‘shire’ Toryism.
The process by which HS2 is being imposed also bears all the hallmarks of neoliberal ‘governance’. It is led by an unaccountable quango, HS2 Ltd, given a narrow remit to design a new rail line, thus ruling out the possibility that it would be better to spend money improving the existing rail network. Exhibiting the classic neoliberal governance model of managerialism and managed ‘participation‑lite’, HS2 did organise a national public consultation. The results showed massive opposition to the project. When asked ‘Do you agree that a national high speed rail network from London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester would provide the best value for money solution for enhancing rail capacity and performance?’, less than 7 per cent of respondents said yes; more than 93 per cent said no.
Grands projets inutiles
Much is made by HS2 advocates of the ‘success’ of high speed rail in Europe. Again, the reverse is the case. The Portuguese government has abandoned a £2.6 billion Lisbon–Madrid HSR link. France’s plans for TGV expansion are running into financing problems because of the recession and the country’s budget deficit. Poland is shelving plans to build a 480-kilometre line. The Dutch high speed train operator needed rescuing from bankruptcy with a £250 million government bailout; plans for an Amsterdam to Germany line have been suspended. There are other similar examples. Cities such as Lille in France are held up as examples of the regeneration impact of HSR, but in fact the regeneration of Lille has been fuelled by quite different funding programmes, and even so unemployment in the city has risen faster than nationally.
Across Europe, there is opposition to high speed rail. Under the banner of the ‘Treaty of Hendaye’ (the site of opposition to a Franco–Spanish high speed line), activists in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK have joined forces against grands projets inutiles (useless mega-projects). In Stuttgart, activists against a high speed line have faced water cannon, while in the Susa Valley in Northern Italy a 20-year struggle has seen the route of the TAV project militarised to drive it forward. For these activists, linked to the World Social Forum, high speed rail is at odds with environmentally sustainable local economies and ways of life.
In England, there is an alliance of 70 local action groups opposing HS2. The government has tried to characterise the opposition as wealthy ‘nimbys’, and the line does indeed run through attractive rural areas in the Chilterns and Warwickshire. But not everyone who lives in rural areas and opposes HS2 is rich, and it also cuts through swathes of inner city London and Birmingham. In reality, it is the business and political elites who support HS2 who are the rich and privileged.
The question is why many who might be expected to oppose projects like HS2 either support it or have not yet woken up to its implications. It is a great pity that the rail unions are taking the short term view that any new railway must be a good thing, rather than thinking about the threat to terms and conditions, and to employment elsewhere on the railways, posed by HS2.
And what about all the MPs and councillors in areas that will help pay for HS2 (an average of £51 million per constituency) but gain nothing from it, while local transport projects struggle for funding? Why should Bolton, Burnley, Barnsley and Bradford support their subordination to London, Manchester and Leeds? They might look at towns around Lille and Lyon that have suffered ‘collateral damage’ as investment has been sucked to the main regional cities with TGV stations.
Why should other trade unionists support a project creating relatively few jobs at an eye-watering cost of £400,000 each? As Labour’s Sustainable Development Commission pointed out, the transport investments of greatest benefit to local economies are local and regional links, not prestige grands projets.
The government’s decision in January to go ahead with HS2 is only the start of an extended process, leading up to a parliamentary hybrid bill, which may or may not conclude in the lifetime of this parliament. This summer, the announcement of the detailed route to Manchester and Leeds will be sure to provoke further protest. There is still time for a progressive majority to realise it is being taken for a ride and stop this neoliberalism on wheels in its tracks.
Mike Geddes chairs Offchurch HS2 Action Group in Warwickshire
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism