Whither the West Midlands part 2: The potential of HS2
This blog is the second of four which relate to my recent panel appearance on 26th January in the Great Regional Debate sponsored by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). This brought together experts from RTPI, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Royal Institute of British Architects, Institution of Civil Engineers and the Landscape Institute. This blog focuses on a question put by Dan Roberts of Lichfield District Council
Do panel members feel that HS2 will contribute to or counteract a West Midlands 'brain drain'? And why?
In answering this I would like to draw upon a similar debate some years back where when I was at Aberystwyth University and there was a proposal for the A55 expressway in North Wales. Arguably this was going to transform the economy of rural Wales and prevent outmigration and problems of rural deprivation as well as bring in new inward investment. Seemingly, it was a long term solution to intractable rural problems.
The result of that road was that it actually led to increased outmigration as people used the road to work in England leaving a commuter role for many rural communities which actually hastened service decline. Furthermore iinward nvestment was based on branch plants which were the first to close when conditions got tough creating a vulnerable economy. So we need to be aware of perverse policy effects.
However, if we can anticipate these problems we can plan for them and ensure we position all the West Midlands to take advantage of HS2 and not become simply part of the commuter belt for London. In doing that we need a clear strategy ourselves set within our regional identity which has clear logic and expression on a world stage in a way that the current LEPS don't. We also have to recognise the key assets of our region in terms of city, countryside and community where people and firms are encouraged to invest and live and work and play. It is so much more than the Birmingham core. This will prevent a brain drain.
However there is another facet to this. We certainly need HS2 now, yet it will only be operational in 2026. The debate seems fixed around the need to catch up with our competitors who all have High Speed trains. The danger is that by 2026 when it is running it might be out of date leading to a brain drain simply because forward thinking countries (our competitors) will have invested in a new wave of infrastructure developments. These may challenge the idea of people travelling to meetings when we can use virtual meeting spaces within superfast IT networks. So playing catch up now might exacerbate the brain drain later.
The need to think creatively and imaginatively about the future is vital. Scenarios involving the people, communities and businesses of the West Midlands need to think outsdie the box of the staus quo. Think about how we have changed in technology over the last 20 years. Using Darwin's analogy we have to adapt to survive and prosper.
So at the regional and national level we need to learn from past experiments and ventures and think about how we want to do business effectively in the future . Then we shape a joined up infrastructural response to achieve it.
The current process of HS2 leaves me very uncomfortable. And it is being replicated on the proposed Boris Island airport as each new proposal is considered in isolation but promoted as vital to England PLC. Now as a business surely we should have a clear strategy within which we can all see and contribute to where we want to go and how we are going to get there. As a spatial planer I share this need. To look at individual projects in isolation misses the bigger picture of connections so vital for economic growth.