Why HS2 should speed ahead

We need bold policies.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take the Eurostar will have felt no small wonder at the speed and grace with which the sleek train snakes under the Channel and into Paris. Plans for HS2, a second high-speed line, have stirred anew such excitement.

Compared to the reality so many of us experience daily of overcrowded and delayed carriages pulling in to dirty, decaying stations, the fast and futuristic HS2 seems a welcome departure. From the golden age of steam we can progress to the golden age of speed and ignore the intervening seventy years of stagnation. 

But this is currently romance: despite the clear demand for better infrastructure the sums don’t seem to be add up. Cutting running times by 34 minutes to Birmingham will cost £21 billion, £618 million a minute, and the calculation of economic benefits to business is skewed too: it doesn’t account for the advent of the plug socket and WiFi – ie people working on the trains. Arguably nor will it bring more business to the regions from London, but likely the other way around.

There will be disruption to thousands living in the country, whose houses will be demolished entirely or undermined by constructions works or new noise, and the taxpayer will have to compensate them. Add to this the difficulties faced by farmers who will see their farms severed by the project. And urbanites must suffer too, with potentially 40 per cent of Euston services being cancelled until 2026.

The planners have not even engaged in joined-up thinking: HS2 will not connect at St Pancras, for a swift onward journey to the Continent, but at Euston, a brisk walk or Tube journey away.

These frustrations are many and have seen the government change tack in arguing HS2’s ability to mitigate overcrowding by running fourteen services an hour. Critics have responded by saying most people commute from surrounding suburbs rather than intercity across hundreds of miles. A straw man but a valid point on infrastructure expenditure.

The sorest point is the cost. Is it really cheaper to buy a new network than upgrade what exists? Will the economic benefits materialise? And who believes an HS2 train ticket will be affordable?

The bigger picture

But these challenges show the scale of planning: these are unwanted but accounted-for problems. Ultimately no-one wants to keep the current antiquated rail network, with rail passenger numbers rising, and the employment in its construction is welcome. If we are going to spend big we should at least guarantee we will have the best transport system, future proofed and fast.

As oil prices rise and emission quotas bite, high speed rail is a superb option, not least as we internationalise and need to connect our expanding airports. There is a much bigger, longer-term picture here that shows the real cost will be in waiting.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has highlighted the fact that Britain should have the best possible infrastructure and said on the Today programme this morning that HS2 was ‘essential’ to Britain. He is right.

No great thing is ever easy; it is my sincerest hope that such an ambitious project can overcome these challenges. Bold policies can transcend politics and what better way to spark economic growth than through comprehensive and innovative infrastructure. 

Alex Matchett is a writer for Spear's magazine

This piece first appeared here

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.