Can High Speed Two Bridge the North-South Divide? Weighing the Evidence

Rebecca O’Neill

The Government recently announced its preferred route for Phase 2 of HS2 from Crewe to Manchester and the West Midlands to Leeds. This news will be welcomed by many in the North of England who believe that the new high speed rail line will bridge the ‘North-South divide’, referring to the cultural and economic differences between the South of England, in particular the South East, and the North. Currently, the gap between the two geographical areas in terms of life expectancy and economic trends has grown to the extent that they are almost separate countries.

A number of spatial economists argue that the reason for the divide is due to a lack in connectivity between major cities and that improved transport systems would decrease the divide between the two areas. An assumption exists that if HS2 is able to reduce journey times and increase capacity on the rail network, then businesses in the North of England will be able to compete more effectively for market share in the South. High Speed Two Limited has gone as far as suggesting that the Midlands and North of England will benefit more than London from the project.

In France, Lille is considered to have improved economically since being connected by high speed rail (HSR) to Paris, whereas other cities such as Lyon have seen an increase in unemployment since the TGV line was built (Waddell, 2014). In France, Spain and South Korea, the capital has benefited the most by drawing wealth to its centre. For the UK, this could result in Birmingham becoming part of the South East labour market (Tomaney, 2013) and London being the biggest beneficiary from the project.

Evidence from High Speed Two Ltd. suggests that improving connectivity will bridge the North-South divide whereas evidence from opposition groups suggests that it will create more disparities. So which are we to believe?

Evidence within mega projects is often discredited throughout the course of the decision-making process. Projects can be delayed or cancelled in part because of the lack of trust in the evidence on which decisions should be based. Likewise, projects have been approved and implemented on what later was shown to be false assumptions and evidence. Experts often discredit evidence that is in the public domain by revealing flaws in research designs and methodologies such as cost-benefit analyses (CBA).

CBA are a common source of evidence that actors seek to discredit because they are able to question the values given to aspects of the project that would not usually be monetised, for example monetary value placed on the time saved by reducing travel times.

Contested information within mega projects also raises some normative questions. A trade-off issue arises when designing a new high speed train line, as environmental analysis may indicate that the construction of the line will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions, but it might also require the use of materials in construction that are scarce. This means that decision-makers must decide which is more important and make a trade-off between the two.

A trade-off between analyses is concerned with questions of how to weigh the findings from different analyses against each other. In the case of the construction of a new high speed line, there may be a number of economic benefits but also a negative impact on the environment such as the destruction of an ancient woodland or wildlife habitat. Decision-makers must choose which they value more by weighing up the costs and benefits of different aspects based on their values and preferences.

The project of High Speed Two is so contentious because it has been assessed from a variety of different perspectives or frames. Often, these frames are incompatible and lead to fundamentally different interpretations of the same situation, with no clear criteria to distinguish valid interpretations from less valid interpretations, even if actors agree about the reliability of the available information and the expected impacts. In other words, actors involved in decision-making processes may adhere to different normative standards and different views about what the best course of action might be.

Therefore, in the case of HS2, the question of whether the project can bridge the North-South divide depends on how the available evidence is being interpreted and by whom. An economist will weigh evidence differently from an environmentalist.

What counts as evidence often comes to be shaped by the accepted wisdom that the project is a ‘good thing’. This phenomenon of pursuing a project because it is a ‘good thing’ challenges the view that evidence is the precursor to a policy decision. It suggests that policy decisions come prior to evidence, at least in part. And rather than evidence being a ‘neutral’ component of the policy process, it is highly contested.



Rebecca O’Neill recently completed her Doctorate which examined the role of evidence within High Speed Two and other mega-projects. She now works full time as an Economic Development Officer at South Somerset District Council.

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