Eighty per cent of those who participated in a poll on the Guardian’s Northerner web site last week said they didn’t think high speed rail would be any good for Yorkshire.
Yes, I know it’s only the Guardian, and only 23 people may have voted, but as a measure of public opinion it’s marginally more scientific than the ‘Yorkshire says yes to high speed rail’ propaganda that’s been blaring out at us in the media for the last couple of months: “Last chance to close North-South divide”, “North-South battle intensifies”, “Vital for Yorkshire economy”, “North-East backs Yorkshire’s calls for high-speed rail”, “Their lawns or our jobs”.
So what’s going on? The ‘yes’ campaign has been really well funded (not sure by whom). It’s met with little or no opposition in the local media up here. It’s been dreamt up and delivered by some of the finest PR brains in West Yorkshire. So how come it’s not convincing people?
Here are a few possible explanations.
People aren’t stupid
When a newspaper headline says “Yorkshire says Yes to high speed rail”, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s been a referendum on the topic and you’ve somehow missed it. When you read on and find out that all that’s happened is some councils, quangos and chambers of commerce have been speaking on your behalf, you smell a rat. What are they up to now?
We know that most politicians and economists can hardly predict what’s going to happen next week, let alone in 2025 (when the high speed rail project may or may not happen). And we know that all major public spending projects like this end up costing twice as much as advertised and that we’ll be the ones who will foot the bill.
So when the ‘yes’ campaign comes up with ‘facts’ about what’s going to be happening in the Yorkshire economy 15, 20, 60 years from now, most of us file the info away in our brains in the folder labelled Mystic Meg.
We know the difference between facts and PR guff. So, when the ‘yes’ campaign spokesmen (yep, they’re all men) start going on about “transformational benefits” that will “shape business decisions” and “create a competitive edge”, pardon us for our eyes glazing over and wondering what the hell they’re on about.
Same goes for when Metro head James Lewis promises as part of the package a “transformational new transport hub” that’s going to spread the transformational benefits across the region. (I think he means a new train station in Leeds where you can catch a slower train to Goole. Or a bus)
And ditto for Leeds Council leader Keith Wakefield, who gets quoted as saying high-speed rail will “transform railway journeys” from Leeds. We get it, Keith. They’re going to be faster. Nice one.
Compelling arguments. Not.
Then there’s the money – the whopping £2.3bn in ‘economic benefits’ that (they say) the new railway is going to bring to Yorkshire. That’s a lot of money – and £750m of it is headed for the Leeds city region.
Let joy be unconfined!
Well, confine it a little, because the £750m is spread over 60 years – so that’s £12.5m a year – and 80% of it’s going to financial and business services, so that leaves £2.5m a year for construction, manufacturing, customer service and the rest of us.
£2.5 million doesn’t sound like a great amount to spread between 800,000 people (it wouldn’t even buy a replacement for Max Gradel), but hey, greater wealth in the finance and business services sectors in Leeds could well be great news for the posh new shopping centres (they’ll be in need of a facelift by then), the chorizo bars and the waterfront loft landlords. So that’s a positive.
What’s the hurry?
What won’t have helped the ‘yes’ campaign is the fact that it’s never properly explained how all this billion-pound transformational stuff is made to happen just by people getting on fast trains.
Where will all these financial and business services people be coming from and going to in such a hurry? Presumably to important meetings, where they are going to make serious MONEY. Is that how it works – the quicker they get to London or Heathrow, the more money they make?
What’s never properly explained either is who else – apart from those northern yuppies (bless) – is going to get on the high speed trains. I can’t think of anyone. Well, maybe local government officers off on cost-cutting joint procurement awaydays in Manchester. Or social media gurus en route to facilitate the latest grant-sponsored #highspeedrailcamp at the @BirminghamTransportHub.
In any event it’s been measured (by people like Arup – Leeds Council’s, erm, strategic design and consulting partner) that there’ll be so many people on these super-fast trains that ordinary trains (you know, the ones we’d take if we could afford them) will be loads emptier.
With all the flat-cap, finger-pointing going on about ‘southern lawns’ and ‘northern jobs’, you could be forgiven for thinking that the high speed rail line will arrive in Leeds city centre like Mr Benn used to arrive in strange worlds – ‘as if by magic’.
But it won’t.
My pet theory is that all those people who voted ‘no’ in the Guardian poll are from South Leeds. They’ve read in the Yorkshire Post that high speed rail is going to help the “regeneration” of Leeds. And they’re very afraid.
Because they know from personal experience what happens when revolutionary new transport systems and regeneration get together.
They know there’s going to be some transformational bulldozing as the track gets laid to the transformational transport hub in Leeds city centre. And it’s not going to happen anywhere near the lawns of Rawdon or the bistros of Chapel Allerton. The bulldozers will be back in South Leeds to finish off the job they began with the motorways in the 1970s in the name of progress.
“Leeds, The Motorway City”. Remember? It had everyone in the country in stitches. Am offering odds of 4/6 on “Leeds, The High Speed Rail City” as the slogan for 2025.