Planning for life beyond HS2

By Keith Mitchell

When HS2 was first presented, the concept was easy to grasp. Reduce travel times between London and the North - hey presto! The economy grows in the north and the economy is rebalanced!

It wasn’t long before we found out that it is more complicated than that. As the Independent Transport Commission pointed out in their 2012 report, Ambitions and Opportunities, Understanding the Spatial Effects of High Speed Rail, capacity and connectivity were key issues for high speed rail systems elsewhere, and the use of classic compatible high speed trains seen as an important way of connecting people and places together in a way that underpinned local economic success. So perhaps it wasn’t all about speed?

We were also beginning to understand that saving travel time was no longer viewed straightforwardly as an economic benefit for every user - not least because of the impact of technology on the way we use and value time. For example, time on trains might be valued by some as time when you could be connected and working, or listening to the latest podcast - perhaps reliability might be a more important measure of good economic performance?

And so, the shape of HS2 has subtly changed - with more emphasis on delivering greater capacity for the wider rail network, and enhanced connectivity for a wider range of beneficiaries. This appears to be a strategy designed to optimise economic return from the scheme, and stimulate growth outside London by connecting people and places, and providing them with the opportunities that this offers in terms of productivity improvement and agglomeration. All good.

Making economic growth a reality can be hard

One of the stories that illustrates this in Ambition and Opportunities was that of Lille. I first visited Lille when Euralille was under construction, in a mood of optimism and grand plans for international inward investment. Big retail and leisure development, and offices for incoming employers. Subsequent years brought not international success, but something more akin to an economic drain to Paris, a leakage of skilled labour from the weaker economy to the stronger economy. Some years later, this was turned around - not by a grand outward looking plan - but by a local plan which built on the local and regional businesses, who - over time - began to find the additional connectivity to Paris and elsewhere of value to their work. And so the people of Lille began to benefit, from a more sustainable pattern of growth, built on what they are good at. This seems to be a very simple story which might not have a wider resonance for HS2, and the economic growth we want it to stimulate, but there are some important things we should note, especially now we are entering into a new period of disruptive change in the way we live, work, play and travel.

Economic growth does not always follow transport investment in the way you expect

Since at least 1994, we have been working in a world of Transport Oriented Development. The theory being that increased connectivity creates opportunities for greater economically and socially useful activity at a lower environmental cost. But if there is insufficient demand for local economic growth, the likely alternative outcome is that local people will use better transport accessibility to travel elsewhere for their economic activity, with benefit flowing out rather than in, at least to begin with.

Build on local ambitions and strengths to stack the odds in your favour

Alongside HS2 investment and growth strategies, devolution has become an important parallel discussion. This is a big step forward, with the local and regional teams taking a real lead in developing plans for growth. However, there are pitfalls. It is easy to become seduced by the enthusiasm and ambition that can be generated when envisioning a better future for your area - anything is possible! But is it? Are the plans grounded in reality? Is a longer term plan built from the talents of local people and new communities less attractive because of negative commuter town connotations this seems to raise. Or would such a plan have its merits?

To make things more difficult, the world is changing very quickly

Just as we have begun to get our head around some of these complexities, the world has begun to shift again. The UN now says we have ten years to get a grip on climate change, and make radical changes transport systems. Will the next ten years bring widespread use of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), autonomy and alternative fuels? Will we have more dispersed patterns of living supported by technology and more flexible working patterns. How will robotics and biotechnology affect our working lives? Are these things unknowable? Does the past still provide a sensible guide to the future, or are traditional empirical methods of forecasting and appraisal now defunct - and if so, how should we do this now?

We need to get better at planning for uncertainty

I know I don’t know the answer to any of these questions - or that anyone really does. Instead, we need to get better planning for an uncertain future, making our plans as resilient as possible to inevitable change. We need to avoid plans that build in those futures that we know we don’t want, and instead leave our plans open to other, more desirable futures.

How do we know what is a more desirable future?

Have we asked the people who already live or work there, or who might live or work there in the future, what they think? What sort of place do they want to live in? How do they see their future life at work? What sort of place do they want to bring their children up in? I am guessing it is here that not much has changed. Health, happiness, prosperity, good schools for the kids, and so on... those things we find at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of need.

We need to define what we are actually trying to deliver

Part of the problem we face is that we tend to talk in professional jargon and euphemism. Economic growth? What do we really mean by that phrase? Is it really about building new communities that provide the right conditions for the people who live and work there to be prosperous? To be happy and healthy? Have access to a good job? A good local school? Good local shops and recreation? If so, what would really help to deliver economic growth, how does HS2 fit into the needs of such a fast changing society, and what is the balance of investment needed to support such new, viable communities?

Planning for life beyond HS2

We now need to embrace what is best about each local community, and create a local vision for new places that sees HS2 as a part of a wider transport mix, and which delivers communities which are best able to adapt to the challenges of each wave of rapid changes in society. This is the contention of the CREATE project, a European funded project looking at mobility policy in a range of European Cities, and of the Commission for Travel Demand, both of which conclude that we need to change the way we plan for future communities, putting the vision of the new community at the heart of the planning process (vision and validate) and an adaptive management approach at the heart of delivery (monitor and manage).

This is not about reams of new guidance (although no doubt this will come) but it is more about using the techniques we already have in different ways in support of a more locally focussed approach to planning, design and delivery, and ensuring that we secure viable economic growth in a way that builds places fit for the future. It is also about empowering local leadership with the powers they need to deliver it, but therein lies a whole other tale...


PBA, now part of Stantec, is proud to be conference report partner for the HS2 Economic Growth Conference on 7 November 2018. Keith will be at the event, chairing the first session of the day on London Hubs.

Keith Mitchell

Keith Mitchell

Director - Community Development and Infrastructure

  • UK
  • 07770 698156