Could new working from home culture after coronavirus leave HS2 without commuters?

Though the country may still be in lockdown, its biggest and most controversial infrastructure project has carried on at full steam.

Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 2:12 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 2:26 pm

But could an emerging culture of working from home eventually stop HS2 in its tracks?

Some industry experts are suggesting that the Zoom call meetings we've had to adjust to over the past six weeks will become our new normal. The office, they believe, will be at home for good.

But if that does prove to the case, what does it mean for HS2, which already faces widespread opposition, including in Wakefield?

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Work has already started on Phase One of HS2, which will link Birmingham to London.

Government ministers have long preached the benefits of the project to the economy and jobs.

They say it will connect people in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and London to jobs they would otherwise have been unable to commute to.

But if we're all working from home, might that not wipe out large numbers of passengers who would have used the service?

Jonathan Pile, a local businessman and member of Crofton Against HS2, certainly thinks so.

Some industry experts think working from home could be here to stay.

"We're heading for a new society where people's behaviour will be fundamentally changed," Mr Pile predicts.

"It's going to be a very long time before business returns to normal, if it ever does return to normal.

"People aren't suddenly going to be rushing straight back onto busy trains and commuting long distances.

"I think more people will be teleworking as they are now. Things aren't going to be the same as they were.

Jonathan Pile is a prominent campaigner against HS2 and believes public scepticism of it may broaden.

"The numbers the government had in all their passenger forecasts for HS2 were never there, but they're definitely not going to be there now."

Those in charge of HS2 insist however that the scheme will still generate thousands of jobs, plus 400,000 contracts opportunities for businesses big and small.

They say it will also take us out of our cars and lorries, "cut demand for domestic flights" and help drive the country towards carbon neutral status.

But Wakefield councillor Kevin Swift, who chairs a local committee scrutinising public transport, suggests the economic case for HS2 is on shaky ground.

The project has been dubbed a "white elephant" by critics.

"Rather than pressing the pause button, I do think it's unfortunate the government have decided to carry on during all of this," Labour's Coun Swift says.

"We're going to have to see when we get back to normal just how far trends like working from home will go.

"But even before coronavirus got going, there were signs that commuter patterns were changing and the growth (in passengers) some thought was inevitable didn't carry on quite as much as people thought it would."

Wakefield stands alone in West Yorkshire in opposing HS2. The proposed route of Phase Two is due to pass through the likes of Crofton and Nostell on its way up to Leeds.

Communities sense they'll see few of the perks and lose treasured green spaces.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, however, has been steadfast in its support of the scheme and insists that Wakefield will benefit.

Wakefield councillor Kevin Swift said the government should have "pressed the pause button" on HS2 during the current pandemic.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5Live after The Budget in March, director Henri Murison said: "The reality is what's in Wakefield's interests is often also in Leeds' interests.

"There are very few problems which stop at a local council boundary, which nobody really knows where it starts or ends.

"We have to be honest with people, that if they don't want their children to go to London, they need places like Leeds to be successful."

Inevitably though, the costs of HS2 are likely to come under even greater scrutiny now, with public finances having been walloped by coronavirus.

Councillor Swift dismisses Boris Johnson's claim that the train line will symbolise a Great British recovery from the pandemic as "simplistic".

"In Wakefield we thought HS2 gave bad value for money six months ago," he adds. "I would say those arguments are even stronger now."

Mr Pile also believes the current crisis could strengthen public scepticism.

"We've always said the NHS should be getting the cash that's being spent on HS2," he says.

"I think people will become more strident and more grumpy about it. It's a white elephant."

Controversially, construction work on the Birmingham to Leeds line has been allowed to continue despite lockdown.

HS2 says social distancing is being maintained and that sites are operating safely.

Other parts of the line have had work paused.

A statement from HS2 on the issue said: "Our contractors are continuously reviewing their ability to work within Public Health England’s and the Construction Leadership Council ‘s guidelines to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of our workforce and the communities in which we are working."

But the work has sparked protests in London and Warwickshire in recent days, with some sites being blockaded by campaigners.

Mr Pile says such protests could be mimicked in Wakefield if and when work starts on phase two here.

"People are literally dying because the NHS hasn't got what it needs and yet contractors are carrying on with HS2," he says. "That's a scandal.

"We will be willing to take more direct action in our protests if we have to. We will of course do things peacefully, but we will be more direct."

While everything else is on pause, the building of HS2 is accelerating.

But with a new working world awaiting us post-pandemic, so too are the arguments around it.

Local Democracy Reporting Service

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There have been protests at HS2 construction sites in recent weeks.