I’M reporting from the HS2 frontline in South Yorkshire. The good news is that acres of ancient woodland just minutes from my front door are not about to be churned up and lost forever in the name of progress.
The route of the high-speed link between the capital and the North of England has changed from the first set of plans, diverted away from Meadowhall and the south of Barnsley, towards the Dearne Valley.
The bad news, for the residents of a new Strata Homes estate in Mexborough for a start, is that their properties could face demolition if the latest route goes ahead. As politicians and planners wait and debate, these families are powerless to stop the value of their investment plummeting. The place they hoped to put down roots and call home risks turning into a ghost town.
By the time HS2 does come to pass – expected to be at least 2033 – their homes and lives will have been blighted for decades. They are by no means alone. This is a scenario repeated in communities along the entire stretch of the track, from London to Birmingham and beyond to Yorkshire and the North West.
Is the cost, set to top £80bn on current estimates, worth it? Ask those people in Mexborough and they would definitely say no.
I side with them. When you look at HS2 in the context of everything else that the UK needs right now, in the cold light of 2017, it seems like an indulgence.
The problem is that this ambitious plan was conceived and sketched out in what seems like a different age. This was before Brexit. Before Scotland threatened to break with the rest of the United Kingdom. Before the ferocity of domestic terrorism took hold. And before we ended up with a General Election and a Prime Minister in charge with such a fragile grasp on power.
I’m just an ordinary person, not the Prime Minister. However, if you put me in charge of apportioning public money right now, I’d say that other issues take emergency precedence.
We have to negotiate our way towards a sensible Brexit, above all. The future of our entire country is at stake; our position in Europe and the wider world by no means securely defined. The process to bring this about will take years and cost millions, if not billions.
Alongside this priority has to be national security; investing in the best counter-terrorism measures, enabling the police force to meet the challenges it faces, and ensuring that our borders are safe from those who would harm us.
And this is before we even start to think about how to redress the failings of the NHS and attack the poverty and deprivation which is destroying so many communities.
There are people living amongst us who can’t even afford to catch a bus. They can only dream of buying a train ticket to London.
Of course, there is a strong business case for a fast, reliable link between the capital and the North of England. Forgive me for being simple here, but we already do have trains. Scores of trains. Every day. Back and forth.
It is perfectly possible to travel from Yorkshire to London in about two hours, depending on which station you depart from. I am yet to be convinced that shaving 20 minutes or even 40 minutes off this journey will have a transformational effect.
Also, although HS2 supporters will argue that siting stations in areas of deprivation will bring employment opportunities, the evidence for long-term prosperity is less clearcut. Yes, the areas around key stations will see an uplift in land values and house prices, but this does not necessarily translate into thousands of sustainable jobs.
What would make far more sense is to invest not only in the proposed HS3 links between Yorkshire and Manchester, but to fund better connections like upgrading the A64 between York and Scarborough. This should focus not just on public transport, but on future-proofing major roads and motorways. This does not mean that the railway from London to the North should be neglected. Far from it.
We have never needed better connectivity between North and South more so than today. The chasm between the two halves of the country deepens before our eyes. It’s not just in terms of economic prosperity and jobs, but in cultural awareness and mutual respect.
The Northern Powerhouse idea has been derided as the vanity project of a former government, but there is a strong need to balance out all regions of England. This won’t happen if the North pulls up the drawbridge; we must stop regarding North/South relations as a matter of them and us. And in return, London and the South East must do the same. We can achieve this without a high-speed rail link. We simply need to invest in what we already have and put further plans on hold, for now at least.
If our generation neglects this vital artery, our children and grandchildren will not thank us for it. However, we don’t have to bleed the country dry to provide it.