After nearly 20 years online myself, I understand the power of virtual connectivity. It has changed the world like nothing since Boulton and Watt started manufacturing the first steam engines in Birmingham 235 years ago. But a prosperous economy cannot be built on digital linkages alone. For the first time in history, the world is now majority-urban. Cities are where people come together to share ideas and build dreams.
The genius of HS2 is to converge the places where people converge – cities. Rail travel times to Leeds and Manchester from Birmingham will halve, while London will be 49 minutes from Birmingham and Paris less than three hours.
These are complements to, not substitutes for, the digital revolution. Those who puzzle at HS2 when we have video conferencing understand neither human history nor its future.
HS2 makes it easier for more people to be in the same room and digital technology makes it easier for them to find reasons to be so. There is a virtuous circle of people being in proximity and technology opening up new connections, which creates further reasons for them to interact and be in proximity. Economists call the benefits of getting everyone in the same room agglomeration. Everyone else calls it life, humanity.
One of Birmingham’s great under-exploited advantages is its location. The potential for agglomeration in Birmingham is greater than elsewhere. But our rail infrastructure doesn’t currently reflect this quality. HS2’s Y-network changes this. It would put Birmingham at the centre of the national rail network, in a way that it isn’t now. When combined with local and regional rail enhancements, KPMG estimate the benefit to the west Midlands at £1.5bn and 22,000 jobs.
Major cities which become connected to other cities, and particularly to larger ones, by high speed rail always see a significant rise in economic growth. For once, this is a nationally-funded project from which Birmingham benefits disproportionately. Failure to grasp the opportunity would be perverse.
But if we in Birmingham stand to benefit most, Leeds and Manchester will benefit massively too. As will anyone within future striking distance of the line. Which is the overwhelming majority of people in the UK.
And we all need to have the self-confidence and conviction to celebrate being closer to London, not shrink from it. Birmingham has nothing to fear from a London less than 50 minutes away and everything to gain from having one of the three or four great world cities even more squarely on our doorstep. This is an opportunity afforded to us uniquely in Europe, and to only a handful of other cities on the planet. Birmingham’s irreducible core, which will be strengthened if the city makes the right choices, ensures that bringing London closer will not reduce us to its satellite. It will further open Birmingham to the world through the window on it that is London.
My one complaint is that HS2 is scheduled to take too long. There are no technical reasons why we need to wait 15 years for this project to come on stream. In other parts of the world, such rail schemes are delivered – conception to completion – much more quickly and with much less fuss. For once, let it be so here, and let’s aim for 2018. If this is worth doing, and it is, it’s worth doing a lot more quickly.
Siôn Simon stood down from parliament in 2010 in order to campaign for an elected mayor for Birmingham
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.