North regional development expert questions high speed rail link benefits

MPS have been told that claims a new high-speed rail line will transform the British economy are “weak” by a leading North expert on regional development.

Professor John Tomaney
Professor John Tomaney

MPS have been told that claims a new high-speed rail line will transform the British economy are “weak” by a leading North expert on regional development.

Professor John Tomaney, who is based at Newcastle University, also said London would probably be the biggest winner if a new high-speed rail line was built and that it would only benefit rich people.

He made his comments to the Commons transport committee yesterday after submitting a review of evidence about the impact of high-speed rail to an MPs’ inquiry into the Government’s plans for a new North-South link. Prof Tomaney said: “The evidence for high-speed rail to transform the economic geography of the UK, I think, is fairly weak. It is very difficult to find and we have looked hard for it.

“On the other hand I think the evidence that investment in metropolitan public transport systems can make a difference to local economic development is quite strong, certainly much stronger than the other case.”

He added: “If the objective of this is to transform the economic geography of the UK, you’d go about it in a different way to the way that is being proposed in ministerial speeches and DfT consultation documents.

“You could say that if I had £30-odd billion to spend on regional development, I wouldn’t necessarily be spending it on a high speed rail system.”

Money would be better spent on schools, skills and technology, according to the academic.

MPs were also warned that a new rail link and stations would not necessarily boost the economy – and that regional planning and investment was key to unlocking those potential benefits.

Prof Tomaney said evidence showed that Lilles in France – often highlighted for its success after the arrival of Eurostar – had progressed economically at the expense of surrounding cities. And there was “very strong” evidence that the “bulk” of gains went to a dominant capital.

Very strong planning mechanisms and more “resource commitment” to regional policy was needed to reduce that risk, he said.

He also suggested the intuition of business chiefs supporting high-speed rail were “wrong” because the evidence did not support the argument.

And he questioned who would benefit from the construction of a new high-speed rail link, saying it was for and about “affluent people”.

“This is not a policy proposal about meeting the needs of the poor inherently,” said Prof Tomaney.

 

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