I may have mocked the HS2 Phase 2 report, but in all honestly, I can’t help but be impressed by what it represents.
Yes, HS2 would cost a lot of money, and yes, it won’t be complete for decades, but at least it’s a plan. And remarkably, it largely has cross-party support – essential as the project will span many parliaments.
Sadly, the way that HS2 is being justified, and the grounds on which it is being debated, all fails to recognise the true ambition. The ‘business case’ is all based upon completely made-up economic calculations whose only purpose is to make the project politically possible.
It would be much more honest (and would no doubt save much time and expense) to just admit the ultimate goal: we want a national high speed railway to enable us to get around faster, further, and without the stress of driving. Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester is just the beginning. We’re building the line between those cities not just because that’s where the most demand is, but because you have to start somewhere.
There’s an even bigger vision at play here though. High speed railways are being built all over Europe – and we can be part of that. An underplayed benefit of the UK high speed network is the link to the Channel Tunnel, and from there to the rest of the continent. Forget the quicker Manchester-London schedule, the real eye-opener would travelling Manchester direct to Barcelona.
The grand vision is for a World that’s more connected, with everyone having the ability to explore other cultures and landscapes. Railways built to a common high-speed standard is a route towards this.
I believe there should be more vision in politics. Politicians should commit to long-term goals even if the path towards them is uncertain. We shouldn't let the necessity of being pragmatic in the present stop us from projecting where we want to be in the future.
A few leaders already do this. Obama’s support for the goal of a World without nuclear weapons. The LCC’s Go Dutch vision of a London designed for cyclists and pedestrians. Even Mozilla’s longstanding defence and pursual of an Open Web.
There are many areas of public policy which could do with a grand vision, but here are a few ambitions I’d like to propose:
- That as well as a new high speed rail network, we should also commit to electrifying all the existing railway lines.
- That we should decrease border controls and increase the right to move freely until visas and passports are no longer necessary.
- That all healthcare, including dentistry and ‘social care’, should become an universal & international benefit delivered free and without prejudice.
- That everyone should be given the opportunity to spend several years studying in depth a subject of their choice, without any expectation that this be directly useful.
- That we should actively reduce and then ban the use of private cars in city centres.
- That tobacco smoking should be eradicated.
- The we should support a network of the best artists, writers and musicians, whose work can then be treated as a public good and distributed freely.
The future belongs to those that can imagine it.