· News

HS2 backtrack “sad” result for northern talent

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said HS2 would be replaced by 'Network North' -

Rishi Sunak’s abandonment of the northern leg of the HS2 rail line yesterday (4 October) came under fire as a blow to talent development and mobility in the north of England.

The changes, announced at the Conservative Party Conference, will mean the high-speed rail project will only connect London and Birmingham.

The proposed route to Manchester has been scrapped, but will be replace by Network North, a wider investment in various transport links in the north of England. Dates for the project have not yet been revealed.

Read more: Sunak says pay rises must follow increase in productivity

Katie Winstanley, HR director of specialist infrastructure recruiter Morson Group, headquartered in Salford, told HR magazine that she was disappointed by the news.

She said: “From a talent mobilisation piece, it’s quite sad. 

“The majority of our businesses are in the north of England, and having those fast connections to Birmingham, Leeds and London would have been really beneficial to both business and the economy, and to talent mobilisation throughout the North.

“For all the pandemic changed things, the power of face-to-face interactions is still really critical. And I do think having better rail infrastructure would have enabled those conversations and face to face interactions.”

Ryan Swift, research fellow at policy think tank IPPR’s northern branch, criticised the decision as a blow to the government’s own Levelling Up policy intended to revitalise the northern economy.

He told HR magazine: “It’s a betrayal of the North, really.

“Promised for a decade, today it has been taken away. Transport is the backbone of rebalancing the country, and the decision here undermines that commitment to [rebalancing the economy].”

The UK consistently spends less on public investment than the average developed country, and in the North, the level of public investment falls below that of Greece, Swift noted.

Morson Group had been in contact with HS2 since the start of the project. For Winstanley, its early demise will cut short a huge amount good work done in promoting social mobility.

She said: “From our interactions with it, HS2 had one of the best and most forward thinking D&I agendas that I have seen, and we work with a lot of infrastructure partners. They were pushing diversity and social mobility in every aspect of their projects.”

Much of the impact will come from the scrapping of HS2’s training budget, Winstanley continued.

“There was a lot of investment going into the engineers – and we all know about the skills shortages in those sectors,” she said.

Many of the skills being learned in HS2, she added, could be transferable to other infrastructure projects

With so much of the project dealing with electrical infrastructure, engineers trained could then transfer out to other much-needed projects, such as improvements to the National Grid.

“I think it will be interesting to understand how Rishi and the Conservative government intend to offset those investments, to ensure that talent within the North doesn’t get left behind,” she said.

While HS2’s abandonment might be bad news for talent development, other infrastructure projects in the UK are likely to welcome the news, according to Tania Bowers, global public policy director at the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo).

She told HR magazine that while the decision to scrap HS2 was disappointing, especially for north-western employers short on talent, it would be a relief to the engineering sector.

“It’s no secret that HS2 has been absorbing a significant amount of the UK’s labour market and this news will free up some much-needed resources in a skill short sector,” she added.