High speed UK: Why HS2 must only be the start of a wider national high speed rail network

The existing proposals for HS2 have won many fans. Image: Getty.

HS2 is, to put it mildly, a divisive topic, with many compelling arguments on both sides of the debate.

For UK cities, HS2 represents a mixed bag. That’s true, both in terms of the positives and negatives for individual cities; but also in that, as currently planned, HS2 risks disproportionately channelling economic benefits to some cities while leaving others behind.

Inter-city connectivity is a vital prerequisite to economic growth. HS2 has a crucial role to play in bringing cities across the UK closer together, facilitating the spillovers of knowledge and ideas which lead to economic agglomeration and, ultimately, growth.

It follows that the primary beneficiaries of this investment will be those cities with full high speed connections. But the government has also been keen to highlight the benefits HS2 will bring even to cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool, which are only planned to be connected into HS2 via “classic compatible” services. These will run on existing – lower speed – track for the last leg of their journey.

The proposed HS2 network. Click to expand. Image: Department for Transport/HS2 Ltd/ResPublica.

Over time, however, the current two tier strategy will inevitably lead to increasing segregation between “high speed” cities and the rest. Cities which remain dependent on increasingly outdated infrastructure will be seen as less attractive locations to live and work, with all the attendant negative economic and social consequences for their populations this implies.

In Japan, cities connected to the high speed Shinkansen network have experienced far greater population and economic growth than those cities which were not. In the UK, a similar result would mean advantaging those cities with a full high speed link to the direct detriment of those without. The economic gains promised by HS2 will likely end up concentrated in cities advantaged by dedicated high speed track and stations.

If HS2 is to fulfil its stated ambition of spreading prosperity more widely across the UK, it cannot leave the majority of UK cities stranded in this way. The money and effort HS2 will absorb make this a once in a generation investment. It should not done by half measures.

It is therefore critical that the government seizes the full potential of HS2, and commits to extending the proposed national high speed rail network to more cities across the country. This would distribute the benefits of high speed rail more equitably, by stimulating additional growth in these other cities and mitigating the risk that they will be left facing stagnation – as well as increasing the contribution of the high speed rail network to the national economy.

It is of course impractical to suggest that every city should have a direct link into HS2. Yet the vision of a national high speed network, connecting the major cities throughout Britain – including Scotland and Wales – is eminently possible, and indeed desirable when the potential consequences of the current plans, as outlined above, are considered.

ResPublica last month published Ticket to Ride, a report calling for a dedicated high speed rail connection from Liverpool city centre into the planned HS2 route. The report focused on specific sectors of the Liverpool economy which high speed rail would help to drive forward, including the freight potential of the newly expanded port, as well as the region’s strong recent business and employment growth figures.

ResPublica's proposed Liverpool extension. Click to expand.

However, the key theme underlying these arguments is that Liverpool, much like other historic Northern cities, is at an economic tipping point. The region has seen considerable economic progress in the years since the turn of the millennium, yet the report made the case that high speed rail would be the vital investment which could cement this positive local economic trajectory.

On the flip side however, should Liverpool’s case for a direct high speed connection be ignored, this could see the region slip back into its post-war slump, as other cities – and Manchester in particular, as its closest neighbour – are prioritised at Liverpool’s expense. Liverpool is therefore a good example of a city which high speed rail could transformatively benefit, if current network plans are extended, but which otherwise risks being handicapped in the long-run.

Moreover, the extension we advocate would provide the first branch of “TransNorth” – an East-West high speed rail line connecting the cities of the North of England, of the kind currently being considered by Transport for the North and the National Infrastructure Commission. This would open the benefits of high speed rail to cities across the North of England like Hull and Newcastle. We therefore see the connection to Liverpool as a vital investment for Government.

Current plans for HS2 risk seeing the worst of both worlds – incurring considerable expense and effort, but spreading prosperity unevenly across the country and actively harming the long-run interests of some cities. Further investment, to create a genuinely national high speed rail network with full high speed connectivity for all parts of the country, will help to drive economic growth across the UK in years to come – and play a critical role in the rebalancing of the national economy.

Duncan Sim is senior policy officer at ResPublica.

You can download the “Ticket to Ride” report here.


Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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