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HS2: 2B or not 2B? - The Great Debate

27 January 2014

John Acres

Railways, let alone high speed trains, may not have been around in Shakespeare’s era, but the West Midlands Great Debate, staged jointly by the RTPI, RIBA, RICS, ICE and the Landscape Institute, could well have been a classic drama on Shakespearian lines.

Played out in front of a packed audience in the brand new auditorium within the Parkhouse Centre at Millennium Point – overlooking what may one day be the new Curzon Street terminus of the London to Birmingham high speed railway – the Great Debate well and truly lived up to its name.

Superbly and amusingly chaired by Evan Davis, voice of Radio 4’s Today Programme and BBC’s Dragon’s Den, the Great Debate was hosted this year by the RTPI, celebrating its Centenary year.

Played out in front of a packed audience in the brand new auditorium within the Parkside Building, Birmingham City University – overlooking what may one day be the new Curzon Street terminus of the London to Birmingham high speed railway – the Great Debate well and truly lived up to its name. 

HS2 has always been viewed as a project which people either love or hate. So Evan Davis opened the proceedings with a vote from the audience, showing, perhaps predictably in view of the nature of the delegates and the location of the event, that the vast majority were in favour of the project.

He reminded us that the official cost benefit analysis showed that there would be £1.70 gained for every £1 invested on Phase 1 and £2.30 for every £1 invested on Phase 2 - but felt these figures were questionable and so we should focus on the wider issues.

The six high profile panellists included Sir Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council, Davinder Bansall, Architect with Glenn Howells Architects, and Pete Waterman OBE, record producer and founder of Waterman Railway Heritage Trust who were in favour of the motion. Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Chris Stokes, independent consultant representing 51M, a group of local authorities opposed to HS2, and Jerry Marshall founding member of AGAHST (Action Groups Against High Speed Two) generally opposed the motion.

Great Debate

Photo: Caters Photographic

There was a brief interlude, midway through the discussion for Evan to interview Donovan Bailey from HS2 Ltd, to respond to some of the burning issues raised both by Evan and the audience.

For Sir Albert Bore the merits of the project were twofold, to address a lack of rail capacity between Birmingham and London and the potential for seizing the opportunity for economic growth. Pressed by Evan Davis to choose between HS2 and a £5bn bonus for Birmingham, Sir Albert chose HS2. It’s a huge catalyst for growth he said.

Chris Stokes on the other hand felt the project was flawed. Capacity is less of a problem on longer distance routes. The key concern is on the London commuter routes and the more poorly served rural lines. This is a vanity project he said. £50bn could be better spent on railways in the regions.

Davinder Bansell viewed HS2 as an opportunity to develop the network and bridge the north–south divide. He saw Birmingham becoming a new centre of High technology. HS2 would provide scope to regenerate the City and extend the benefits into the rest of the West Midlands, bringing Birmingham closer to London - effectively we would become part of the Tube Map.

Shaun Spiers welcomed the shift to railways from roads – but was clearly nervous about the impact on the countryside. Pete Waterman reckoned that despite the £50bn bill for HS2, the Government would still be spending much more on the existing network. This was all about young people, not Chinese labour, he insisted. He forecast that in the future the network would be completely different. Some said we didn’t need the M25 50 years ago, now we couldn’t do without it!

Finally, Jerry Marshall's idea was to wait a couple of decades for newer technology – later revealed as the magalev idea, already tried on the Birmingham Airport shuttle train but apparently now being developed in Japan. He pointed out that HS2 was high risk, since it was ’all or nothing’.

There were some testing and teasing questions from the audience such as: why don’t we start the project from the north downwards to maximise benefits to the regions; what will be the fare structure and will people be able to afford the trip; will it result in greater focus on the ‘hubs’ or more lead to ‘trickle out’ to the hinterland; and will there be any time savings when Curzon Street is a good 15 minute walk from New Street and Phase 2 avoids both Nottingham and Derby? 

In closing, the panellists asked us to look to the future, albeit from their very different perspectives. The final vote conducted by Evan Davis showed that only two members of the audience had actually changed their positions and therefore the overwhelming support for the project was sustained. However one wondered whether the result might have been different if the event had been held in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire countryside with a different and less committed audience. I suspect the outcome might have been less ‘As You Like It’ and more ‘The Tempest’.

An audio recording the debate can be found here.

About John Acres

John Acres is Director of Residential Business at Turley Associates and editor of Tripwire. John is a highly experienced planner with a career extending across four decades. He has held senior roles with the Greater London Authority, London Borough of Southwark, the Home Builders’ Federation, Redrow Homes and the Catesby Property Group. John is a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Regional Management Board and edits its regional magazine Tripwire.