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13/05/2011
French lessons? Is HS2 a cost effective tool for regional regeneration?


Nearly 30 years ago France became the first European country to invest in a high speed rail network – the TGV. HS2 is, at £33bn, the largest single infrastructure investment in the UK’s history. It is therefore very appropriate to objectively examine the French experience in order to draw lessons about HS2.

Our Government’s case in favour of HS2 includes claims that it will hugely reduce regional disparities within the UK, and they make frequent references to the regenerative impact which the TGV has apparently had on Lille and Lyon.

When considering Lille it is firstly crucial to remember that it is located at the cross roads of the European high speed rail network. It therefore benefits from high levels of accessibility and frequency of service.

Leading transport expert Roger Vickerman of Kent University observes:
“…. the biggest gains in accessibility accrue to the major access points to the network. These are first, the major metropolitan areas such as London or Paris, and secondly major interchange points, such as Lille or Lyon.”

Lille has certainly seen a significant growth in jobs particularly as a result of the large EuroLille development. But has this had any significant impact in terms of reducing the persistently high levels of poverty and unemployment in the Lille conurbation, Nord Department and region? The evidence (from the French National Institute of Statistics – INSEE) shows that it has not:

• Between 1999 and 2009 the rate of unemployment in the Lille conurbation has actually increased relative to the rest of France
• The same applies to the Nord Department and the Nord Pas de Calais Region within which Lille is located. Unemployment in the Nord region, for example, has increased since the arrival of the TGV in the early 1980s (from an average of 10.7% 1982-6 to 11.9% 2006-10), resulting in a further widening of disparities when compared to the rest of France.

Turning to the case of Lyon, this is an area which has traditionally been amongst the more prosperous parts of France. It has not suffered the depredations of the decline of traditional industries on anything like the same scale as the North East of France.

Nevertheless, if claims for the wider regenerative benefits of the TGV are to be believed, some further decline in absolute and relative levels of unemployment might be expected within the Rhone Department, over 75% of the population of which live within the Lyon area.

In fact the reverse is true: unemployment in the Rhone department has increased by nearly 1.5% since the arrival of the TGV (from an average of 6.3% 1982-6 to 7.8% 2006-10). It has also increased in relative terms compared to France as a whole by 1.24%.

The picture for the region of Rhone Alps within which Lyon is located is similar: its prosperity relative to the rest of France measured in terms of unemployment rates has actually declined since the arrival of the TGV in the early 1980s.

In summary it seems clear from the French experience and using our Government’s own examples, that high speed rail has had virtually no impact whatsoever in reducing regional and departmental unemployment disparities. The only ‘benefits’ have been limited numbers of additional jobs at key nodal locations.

Putting this in the context of HS2, whereas London might be considered a ‘node’ in European terms, places like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are not. This is even more so for cities like Coventry, Leicester, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton and so on. If the French experience is valid, all these places seriously risk losing more jobs and investment than they may gain.

See http://tinyurl.com/6dngk8g

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