Are fast trains the solution to the great North/South divide?

Amol Rajan

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The Independent Online

I'm all for fast trains, of course. Their romance and optimism is something a lot of us find hard to resist – which may be why all three main political parties are so in favour of HS2 – a high-speed rail line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Mayor Boris Johnson and several Tory MPs are disgusted with the idea, saying it will rip up England's finest landscapes at huge cost. I must say £17bn seems a frightful amount to spend on a project of uncertain economic benefit.

I'll look more closely into the figures in due course. But if for now I'm inclined to call myself a supporter, despite the strong case against, it's because I'm hopeful the Government is right that HS2 can narrow our North-South divide. I know this is a subject close to Simon's (Northern) heart. The more I read the news, and watch us obsess over the legacy of the London Olympics, the more I think that the divide is one of the most shameful things about our country.

A child born within yards of i's offices in Kensington will probably live to 85. In many parts of the North, it's ten years younger. In Yorkshire and the Humber, disposable income is 12 per cent below the national average. As The Times noted recently, household income in affluent west London is, on average, £30,672. In Nottingham, it's £10,361 – with houses worth a relative pittance too.

Of the 25 areas where most anti-depressants are ordered on prescription, 22 are in the north. The Government is clear that people in the North, on average, are more likely to binge drink and be obese. They are much more likely to live on benefits. And given the public sector accounts for half of the economy in the North-west, but only 34 per cent in the South-east, the Government's austerity drive will disproportionately affect Northern workers. Immigration will go on fuelling the economy in the South-east, and with it keep property prices up.

One of these days I'll retrace George Orwell's steps in The Road to Wigan Pier, and write about it. In the meantime, I fear HS2 might be our best hope; but if any of you have better ideas, get in touch.