HS2 is vital but it’s only part of the solution if we want Northern business to compete fairly with the South
'The North needs both physical and digital infrastructure improvements'
Dr David Spicer is Director of Business and Community Engagement in the Faculty of Management, Law & Social Sciences at the University of Bradford.
I and other business leaders from across the North and Midlands recently put our names to a letter encouraging the Prime Minister to commit to building HS2 in full. This was in response to the rumours that the Eastern leg of HS2 would not be going ahead.
HS2 is not without its detractors, yet there is a clear argument for this investment being delivered in full. Seeking to address the twin challenges of Brexit and Coronavirus, there is a need, now more than ever, for the potential value created by this investment. HS2 could act as a driver for economic growth across the country and, significantly, for job creation and productivity development across the North.
HS2 has the potential therefore to ‘level the playing field’ or at the very least reduce the gradient. It would enable us to work with London and the South East, not against them.
We haven’t seen significant infrastructure works of this type in the North for well over 100 years and the country has suffered in its connectivity and growth as a result. Given the right environment, the potential for businesses across the North to contribute to growth is clear. Bradford, as an example, has been acknowledged several times as one of the UK’s most entrepreneurial cities, yet its connectivity to the rest of the country is not where it should be.
In this regard, HS2 is really only part of the solution. Having worked closely with businesses across the region, one of their biggest concerns is infrastructure and connectivity, not just physical but also digital.
An integrated rail plan for the North that builds on HS2 to maximise connectivity would be a massive step forward in addressing this physical barrier. It would not only improve links with London but would make travel between cities of the North much easier. The benefits HS2 would bring are welcome but when coupled with enhanced cross-country connectivity, they would be game changing.
Physical infrastructure is only part of the story, though. Covid has accelerated digital transformation across the business landscape. Our own research into SMEs has indicated the vast majority of businesses expect this acceleration to continue. This means digital infrastructure, reliable high speed internet and having the knowledge and capabilities to operate effectively within the digital world, are essential for growth and recovery.
The UK economy shrank by an unprecedented 10 per cent in 2020. Now is the time to ensure regional businesses are suitably positioned and well supported to grow. Now is the time for a bold programme of national physical and digital infrastructure expansion which will see our businesses (and our country) not just survive but thrive.