The North/South divide is often joked about, but in business it can be a serious issue. The South of England has a better bill of health, longer life expectancies and a stronger economic climate; and nearly all of the data about growth in the UK is London-centric. Many business owners in the North feel as though they are being left behind, with some economy experts claiming that if more is not done to promote the North of England it may fall behind further, eventually having an economic climate so different it may as well be classed as a separate country. The concern over the North-South divide is so great that politicians have announced plans for a new high-speed rail network (HS2) to connect London with the North of England. The idea is to interconnect Northern towns such as Leeds, Birmingham and Derby, as well as provide a high-speed route to London. The scheme is widely opposed, and many question whether it is the best step for the British Economy.
The HS2 is proposed to be the fastest train in Europe running at speeds up to 400kp, and will be around 330 miles long. However, it will also be the most expensive rail network in the world, costing a staggering £36.4million to build – a price that is still likely to increase with inflation. Running mostly through tunnels, the HS2 will halve the time of most intercity train journeys, with the journey time between Leeds and Birmingham being reduced by over an hour. It will leave from London Euston, and include a spear for journeys to Heathrow, and go straight to Birmingham before spurring off to different cities across the North. It is expected that a high-speed rail link would reduce air and road travel by over 9million journeys a year, and would become the method of choice for many commuters and tourists across the UK.
Its predecessor, the High-Speed 1 (HS1), that connects the south East with Central London, has been well received by local people, despite initial trepidation. Though the network was built primarily to cope with traffic brought in by Channel crossings, it has increased the number of commuters into central London from external counties, particularly Kent. Since the completion of the HS1 in 2006, many areas of Kent have seen rejuvenation, increasing house prices and an injection of nearly £20billion into local economies. Over 17million people use the HS1, and it is this success that has driven forward plans for the proposed HS2 rail network.
Planners speculate that the benefits of the HS2 rail network will create around 40,000 jobs in the UK, with 70% of these jobs being created outside of London, statistics that are very appealing as unemployment levels continue to stay high. The reduced strain on air and road networks could improve services at Britain’s over-worked, at-capacity airports, and as railways are still the ‘greenest’ way to travel Britain’s carbon footprint could be significantly reduced. The economy could benefit with profits in excess of £59billion, and the benefits would ripple out to wider communities, including more rural areas, giving the North a much-needed boost. Yet with many of these benefits not being seen until 2033, is the scheme as worthwhile as the supporters like to make out?
Many of the scheme’s critics are environmentalists and protectors of British heritage. In order to build the line, an area the size of Manchester will have to be concreted with a tunnel built straight through an area of ‘outstanding natural beauty’ affecting fourteen of Britain’s protected buildings. Politicians and advocates have answered with claims that most of the line will be built in tunnels with 200million trees to be planted alongside the high-speed lines, meaning England’s green and pleasant lands won’t be scarred by this new infrastructure.
However, critics aren’t just concerned about the environment; economists are also sceptical of the claims of boosts and improvements the proposed line will bring to the British Economy. While supporters claim that the network will generate profits in excess of £59billion, economy experts have suggested that these figures are only plausible if the demand for travel between the North and the South increases by 133%.
Professor John Tomaney (from University College London) states that high-speed networks actually draw more wealth to the country’s capital, rather than sharing it out, and that the development of the HS2 risks drawing Birmingham (aka ‘the middle ground) into the South, leaving the North more isolated than it is already, and with commentators speculating that this railway network would bring 3x more people into London than out, it is likely that London’s many rail stations may not be able to cope with such a large increase in demand. The focus was supposed to be on moving business out of London yet the scheme risks bringing more people in. Should politicians be looking instead at improving the productivity of commuters on the journey’s that they are already making, rather than working to improve the journey itself?
The suggestion of planners and politicians is that a high speed connection is the best way to keep the UK connected, but could the introduction of a fully connected transport network better serve to bridge the North-South divide?
France seems to think so, and has scrapped plans to further expand its high-speed network after the introduction of free Wi-Fi on all metro trains. Many commuters in France feel their productivity has increased since the introduction of a connected network and, despite some security concerns, it has been largely embraced by the general public. In a global, competitive market-place, businesses increasingly want to make deals outside of the office, and outside of office hours. The ability to close a deal with countries that are behind us time-wise while on the journey home would reduce business costs, and increase productivity and client satisfaction. The apps that are available for most tablets and smartphones mean that devices really are just an extension of an office computer, and utilizing these tools could make workers more efficient.
The introduction of Wi-Fi on the London Underground in time for the 2012 Olympics was well received by tourists and locals alike despite only being available at 80 stations (and only on the platform), but the introduction of charges for passengers not with Virgin Media has seen the idea fall out of favour with the public. If the government were to invest more money into allowing commuters access to these resources for free, this may be a more cost-effective way of bridging this north-south divide. The technology already exists for virtual meetings through platforms such as wiggio or GoToMeeting, and with phones and tablets equipped with high-quality microphones and cameras, all that is hindering these hosts popularity is limited connectivity. However fast the HS2 may be, it will never be as fast or inexpensive as a video conference or an email; with apps available to link your devices and the hotly-anticipated 5G on the connectivity horizon, technology may render the HS2 unnecessary before building has even begun. If commuters in different cities could keep in touch on the go, businesses could expand more into struggling but cheaper cities, improving unemployment in these areas and providing a boost to different local economies. If businesses were constantly connected, the cheaper costs of these Northern cities would be enough to lure them away from the capital in order to maximise profits, and if they could utilize their time commuting back to London effectively, there would be no real need to shorten their journey time at all.
So which is the better idea? Here at FoneRize, we are strong advocates for the development of a fully connected transport network. The infrastructure already exists for this to be put in place, and it would be at a fraction of the cost of the proposed HS2 network. Technology is advancing faster than nearly all other industries in the Western World, and with tablets and phones becoming faster and more capable there may soon be no reason to commute at all, especially as there are twenty years until the expected completion date. Many of the business owners will have moved on or retired by the time the HS2 becomes a real player, and an updated 3G and 3Bar connection could be rolled out country-wide within a decade, with most lines being upgraded within five years. The truth is, the North and South are already connected, and with schemes already in place to upgrade the UK’s broadband system