The National Audit Office in London has delivered a very critical assessment of the proposed HS2 high speed rail link between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. (Click here for BBC report.) Especially damning is the view that the promised economic benefits for cities other than London might not materialise. Worse, these other cities might actually lose out. To come to this conclusion the NAO relied on evidence from around the world, some of it dealt with in this recent Newsnight report. This, to some extent, is the ‘shadow effect’, which argues that it is difficult for other, competing cities to flourish within the ambit of a dominating political, economic and cultural presence such as London. Looking at it this way, HS2 will merely lengthen London’s ‘shadow’.
There are examples of improved communications other than rail damaging areas brought ‘nearer’ to ‘shadow’-casting towns and cities. Here in Wales we need only think of the A55 North Wales Expressway. When the A55 was being built in the 1980s and 1990s we were told, by Minister of State Wyn Roberts, that it was a “Highway of Opportunity” . . . he should have added, ‘for Chester and other places on the English side of the border’. For soon after the A55 reached Bangor the Royal Mail moved its North Wales sorting facilities to Chester. Other employers followed because it was now possible to ‘serve’ North Wales from England. This leap into the future actually took us back to some of the darkest days of Welsh subjugation, when Chester served as the ‘capital’ of North Wales, the place to which countless patriots were dragged to be humiliated and butchered. Turning to a more modern capital . . .
As yet I have heard no Welsh response to the NAO report, nor any comparison made with the proposed Cardiff Metro network. (Institute of Welsh Affairs report here.) Which may not be surprising, seeing as there are comparisons to be made, but these are hardly helpful to the proponents of the Cardiff Metro system. Which also highlights a major difference between HS2 and the Cardiff Metro system. Many of those in favour of HS2 genuinely believe that the reduced journey times from London will bring tangible economic benefits to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and other cities. This can not be said for those pushing the Cardiff system; for as David Stevens of Admiral Insurance put it, “We must help Cardiff compete more effectively with cities across Europe”. (A condition known to clinical psychologists as fixato obsessivo barcelonis.)
The Cardiff system is – as it says on the label – all about making Cardiff look like a metropolis by integrating and aggregating the populations of surrounding urban areas. This linking in with the Cardiff city state project. So if HS2 might extend London’s ‘shadow’ as far as Leeds, what could the Cardiff Metro system do for Newport, Merthyr, Bridgend? I suspect that if this system was constructed, then it would extend Cardiff’s ‘shadow’, allowing little to flourish from Bridgend to the border and from Merthyr to the coast . . . unless it lay within the city.
The evidence is piling up that improved communications often work against ‘peripheral’ areas and this should act as a wake-up call for many threatened by the Cardiff Metro system. It would be nice to think that Labour councillors in the Valleys could tear themselves away from their expenses claims forms for long enough to think about the people they supposedly represent. That senior executives on local authorities might take a break from wangling higher salaries to devote time to the communities they’re employed to serve. But for both, it’s probably too much like hard work, so they’ll end up doing what Russell Goodwage and the Wasting Mule want them to do; plus the IWA, the Cardiff Business Partnership and others who wouldn’t give a toss if Ebbw Vale and Treherbert were to disappear off the map.