Will HS2 really boost the northern economy? The history of the A1 corridor suggests not

At least the A1 provides easy access to this fella. Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

Despite all the fuss about HS2, the discussion surrounding its ultimate impact on northern England remains disturbingly insubstantial despite.

Writers tend to look elsewhere in the world for contemporary evidence. But London's domination of virtually all aspects of national life – economic, financial, political, administrative, transportation, media-related, cultural, even, given that the Archbishop of Canterbury is actually based in Lambeth, religious – is unique among advanced economies. The very scattered nature of the linear urban cluster between Liverpool and Hull at the other end of the line is also routinely ignored.

Both these things matter – and, if we are to accurately assess the value for money of this expensive project, both must be acknowledged as “natural” outcomes of socio-economic development patterns which still operate, rather than of planning or coercion.

The history of England actually provides an ongoing and quite well-recorded series of practical long-term urban “experiments”, which have the virtue of reflecting these pre-conditions. Here I use one such to seek answers to two linked questions:

1) Did simple proximity to London in itself cause economic growth in the past?

2) Have improved communications with London consistently created a significant economic boost to particular towns?

The most relevant transport corridor is the eastern cluster of routes from London to Scotland, commonly known as the Great North Road or the A1, which has been accepted as strategically vital since London first started its rise to economic significance. The railway line which was added in the 19th century also quickly became a premier express route.

The western route was much more difficult, and so less used. It also passes through areas with a far more complex economic history, so it is not appropriate for such a focused investigation into the value of London links.

Into suburbia

Starting at London Bridge, a notional road traveller passes through several distinct “impact” zones on the way to Scotland. First, within the ancient city, this was just a road intertwined with many others. It served an increasingly heavily populated urban mass which spread outward very reluctantly – because virtually everyone walked everywhere. Freight haulage was very expensive indeed.

What the city mostly needed from accessible places was food, including vast quantities of hay, and raw materials; this did not encourage much population growth at the point of supply. Moreover, except in very specific enterprises, the rewards for invested capital were always far better in London than in the places that supplied it with resources.

And so, the area now designated as the London Borough of Barnet remained a scatter of tiny rural settlements, totalling only a few thousand people between them until the 19th century.  In Henry VIII's time, Islington was a small community where he went for hunting parties. It was dominated by a cluster of “handsome and elaborately adorned mansions with gardens and orchards”, whose owners had little economic connection to London, and who could afford to maintain private coaches, something only the richest undertook. Even the first OS map still showed Regent's Park lying in countryside as late as 1822.

Turnpike trusts, which levied tolls on users to fund road improvements, should have improved things from the mid-17th century onwards. These were adopted most readily around London. Hertfordshire became famous for the quality of its roads, and freight wagons and pioneer long distance stage coaches did benefit.

But the local impact was slight: public coaches were slow, uncomfortable, expensive and dangerous conveyances which carried only a handful of passengers. Intensive development only started in Islington in the 1840s, as first horse buses made middle-class commuting affordable and reliable, then railways then reinforced a rapid urbanisation. This “town” thus never had any existence independent of the city, but was shaped entirely by the capital's changing needs, and the available, affordable technology.

Massive population growth meant that commuting steadily became both more intensive and extensive, as it was accepted that huge investment in passenger railways and trams was essential. Barnet now has well over 300,000 inhabitants, which obviously generated significant local employment in servicing their needs. Some manufacturing started up, but these people were Londoners. This zone's economy was driven by the new housing, not the reverse.

Northern urban development was entirely the other way around. The greatest contemporary expert on this process, Edward Baines, commented in 1820 on one clear and typical example:

“Stalybridge has been swelled into importance by the advantages of its local situation... Placed on the banks of the River Tame... near to an ample supply of fuel… the place seems marked out as one of the favourite resorts of the manufacturers... In 1748 the number of houses it contained amounted to only 34.”

It then had 140 inhabitants. But that rose to 5,500 in 1821 and 27,600 in 1901; most of these were employed in thriving cotton spinning mills, which were water-powered at first, and then switched to steam power. Its absorption into the Manchester conurbation only came in recent decades.

The commuter hinterland

Leaving London behind, the ancient route north enters a different zone with several modest, apparently separate population centres, a pattern now supported by Green Belt legislation.

The urban pattern is therefore apparently more northern here – but this arose mostly due to a self-conscious creation of “New Towns”, an attempt to break the commuter pattern. These include pioneer garden cities at Letchworth and Welwyn. Most remain modest in size, as intended; yet they are now firmly embedded in the London travel-to-work area.

St Albans is thus a rarity in having Roman origins, and in being a market by 1200. It became a natural transport hub and a major coaching base, but grew very little. In 1801, 6,000 people lived there, and though it nearly doubled by 1851, this was a below average performance nationally. Bradshaw's railway directory found nothing whatever to be worth a mention in economic terms. By 1950, its population had reached 44,000: even longstanding and excellent transport links with nearby London, only 22 miles away, encouraged only commuting rather than local dynamism.

Bedford is on the far rim of this zone, and until 50 years ago felt much more independent. It had been a borough since 1165, was the county town of Bedfordshire for most of its history, as well as its mid-19th century “agricultural capital”, according to Bradshaw's.

Its population then was 13,400, but its only manufactures were pillow lace and straw plaiting, both generally associated in the 19th century with exploited, poverty-stricken labour. Some small-scale engineering developed later. In 2011, some 82,000 people lived there, but it too had largely become a commuting base; it has never achieved any kind of “partner” role due to its good links to London.

Then substantial towns cease. St Neots and Huntingdon were market and coaching centres, with less than 3,000 and 5,000 inabitants respectively even in 1901. Today, both have reached about 25,000 with little economic development. Cambridge lies off to the east, and despite its ancient university status, in 1801 only 10,000 lived there, rising to 38,379 in 1901.

Lincolnshire and Yorkshire

Stamford is an intensely charming but modest gateway to the thinly-populated expanses of Lincolnshire, loved by film crews for the unchanging streets that still readily evoke prosperous Georgian times – and show how little economic activity it has seen since then. It had fewer than 8,000 inhabitants in 1901, a tiny increase on the mid-century.

Agriculture dominates even more completely as we pass through Grantham, Lincoln and Gainsborough. All of these were just market centres for most of their history, even though Lincoln has a magnificent cathedral. Possibly it is here that the practical limit to commuting currently exists.

Though it is off the ancient way, which swung inland to avoid the Humber, Scunthorpe deserves a mention. It’s the first really industrial place we have come near to, with over 70,000 people living there today.

But its growth owed nothing to London links, for in 1800 the area was divided between five small villages. Rather, it was the discovery of a new method of smelting the difficult iron ore long known to lie nearby which created a thoroughly industrial town. Its transport links were via the River Humber.

Next on the main route lies tiny Retford, then Doncaster. In the early 19th century this was an obviously decayed borough according to Baines: a coaching centre with all the urban governmental apparatus of the 18th century, but nothing happening economically to compare with upstart places like Sheffield and Leeds.

It was undoubtedly the railway to London which made Doncaster industrial, but it was again geology that made it possible: the accessibility of deep coal nearby created a viable overland traffic to the capital in fuel for the first time. It also became a railway centre. The general economy never developed anything of the diversity and dynamism of its more apparently isolated West Riding rivals, nor did any London-based activities move out to it.

That brings us to sleepy Selby, and then York, where George Hudson determinedly – and sometimes fraudulently – played up its ancient advantages as a natural regional transport hub to make it a key railway centre. London links gave added weight, but the early developments were internal to the region. Again, no business left London as a result, and the economy showed little dynamism, except in chocolate manufacturing, linked to Quaker entrepreneurs who were very active in this region.

Into the north east

After that come Thirsk and Northallerton, which an express will rush through before you see them if you aren't ready; and then Darlington, another railway town with ancient foundations, but little happening before 1800. Quakers built pioneer rail links to allow the adjacent area to send coal to London, and engineering followed.

We then pass through the north-eastern coalfield, instead of skirting round as in Yorkshire, taking in Durham – also compact – before at last reaching a major centre of population. There were 270,000 people living within Newcastle’s city boundaries in 1971. Between there and the Scottish border, Morpeth and Alnwick were ancient market towns, and there is a belt of small and poor coal mining towns immediately north of the city.

Central Newcastle, c1900. A road to London never did the city much good economically. Image: Getty.

Newcastle is an odd and important case, as it grew early. Indeed, some see it as a birthplace of modern industrialisation, since before 1750 it took the deep mining and the transportation of coal to levels not seen elsewhere in the world. However, for most of its history, this mineral “harvest” was almost all sent away, rather than stimulating local activity as the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Lancashire coalfields all did later. The key here was the proximity of the early mines to the River Tyne, from which it could be shipped cheaply down the coast and up the Thames to, inevitably, London, via the watery equivalent of the A1.

By Tudor times, the capital had consumed all the wood and peat the earlier, much smaller city had relied on for heat. By the time of the Civil Wars, which commenced in 1642, London was absolutely dependent on this supply to get through winters with any degree of comfort. The control of the trade lay in Newcastle, but even so it was London which saw its economy boom on the back of the actual product. By 1900 the Tyne and Wear urban belt was deeply involved in heavy industry; but it could not compare in size or complexity to the other northern industrial conurbations, and few modern consumer goods were manufactured.

Some conclusions

Overall, this suggests that London's exceptional commercial performance since the 14th century means that everything that can be done there will be – simply because it has better access to finance and business networks. This tends to diminish the performance of areas just beyond its immediate reach at any given time, rather than to include them. If they have some attribute that London cannot replicate, they may strike a partnership which is supportive and profitable – but even the cotton trade never broke entirely away from London's influence. 

Commuting definitely made many areas prosperous, but that was due to the success of London businesses, not local ones. Moreover, transport linkages may seem to offer an environment that tempts London-based activity out in search of cheap premises or a less-stressful life – but very few cases can be found.

A glance at any road map shows how slight the economic development has been overall compared to London itself, or to the western route northwards, where geology provided clear and specific locational reasons for local activity (reinforced until recently by entrepreneurial cultures and specific skill sets). The A1 corridor mostly remained rural and its trading activity focussed on exports of food and raw materials (including coal) to London, rather than creating a local business community able to find new ways to use them locally.

London never had the legal power to hinder business outside its boundaries, so this is not a conspiracy story: simply an acknowledgement that HS2 offers nothing concrete that would change the nature of current trends. Manchester is in no sense the northern equivalent of London, and most towns and cities would gain little if any reduction in travel times to London, even if that was a material factor. And even now, it seems unlikely that metropolitan commuting will spread this far north on a significant scale.

Dr Stephen Caunce was formerly a senior lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire. He has published a range of books on oral history and the north of England. You can buy them here.

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