I love “crazy” ideas when respectable people with years of experience put them forward. So here is Mr Jim Steer of Greengauge 21, a body which researches and develops the concept of high-speed rail networks, arguing that thousands of disadvantaged people – from the physically disabled to those from troubled backgrounds – should be given jobs on the construction of High Speed 2 (HS2), the high‑speed railway that is to be built between London and the West Midlands and points further north. An industry leaders’ group backs the idea.
By a happy coincidence, the Government has prepared the way for this sort of approach by announcing plans for a new college to train the next generation of so-called “world-class” engineers to work on the construction of HS2. The college is to provide the specialised training and qualifications needed for high-speed rail. It will be the first new incorporated further education college in more than 20 years.
There is a precedent for Mr Steer’s proposal – the Rhine‑Rhone line, built and completed in France, where a target was set to recruit 12 per cent of the workforce from various groups in the community. A fifth of these had been on social welfare; just under half had been long-term unemployed; a 10th were aged over 50, and a small fraction had minor criminal records.
I would like to see HS2 follow the French example, but go much further with it. For the employment of a large proportion of disadvantaged people on the building of HS2, say well above 20 per cent, would have two desirable results. It would, surely, be a source of great pride to those so employed and would transform their job prospects. And at the same time, it would contribute to persuading society at large to take a more sympathetic attitude to the less favoured members of the community.