Opinion

Bob Ghosh: On the fast track to regeneration

10 February 2012

HS2 is an opportunity to breath life into the west midlands' struggling economy and create a new central hub in Birmingham - just get the main station right.

The HS2 announcement has been met with resounding approval from Birmingham’s business community. Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council, called it the “single most important opportunity for economic growth in the region for generations”, while Neil Rami, CEO of Business Birmingham and head of the city’s inward investment programme, stated that HS2 will attract overseas investment and promote Birmingham as a global business hub — a gateway to the rest of the UK and Europe.

With strong ministerial backing, HS2 has proved robust enough to have survived a change of government, as well as a powerful and well co-ordinated “no” campaign. Since its inception, former transport ministers Lord Adonis and Philip Hammond, and now Justine Greening, have championed HS2 and upheld cross-party support — an essential ingredient for the success of any major infrastructure project.

Detractors have focused on the London-Birmingham journey time as being the only factor to consider, and whether a saving of around 40 minutes justifies the £32bn investment. However, once operational, the quality of travel, sense of arrival, capacity, frequency and duration of journeys will all be influential in attracting passengers.

Providing the project is ratified through an Act of Parliament, construction could start within four years. However, for the UK construction industry, the impact of HS2 goes far beyond £32bn-worth of contracts. In fact, the scale of the direct investment, at £2bn a year, is actually no more than Crossrail.

If ever a shot-in-the arm were needed for the west midlands regional economy, it is now. January’s unemployment figures were a stark reminder of our region’s vulnerability in the wake of global economic decline and recent expenditure cuts. Behind the fanfare of Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover success story, the press revealed that 20,000 had applied for 1,000 new posts at its Solihull plant.

While it is difficult to predict the precise economic outcomes of HS2, the confidence factor is priceless in terms of investment. Enhanced connectivity could have far-reaching consequences for the local and regional economy. Birmingham Chamber of Commerce quotes a projected £10bn payback a year in terms of the overall uplift in economic productivity, new jobs as well as higher average salaries.

In the context of other infrastructure improvements, Birmingham will become one of the most connected cities in Europe. HS2, alongside a rejuvenated New Street Station, the Midland Metro extension and the newly introduced Birmingham Sprint (RTV) system will have profound effects.

Perhaps of most significance is Birmingham airport’s extended runway, which will facilitate long-haul flights, connecting Birmingham to the Far East and the US West Coast. With a 40-minute journey from Euston to Birmingham Interchange, the airport could legitimately be regarded as London’s fifth airport and a more immediate and credible solution to overcapacity at Heathrow than the third runway or the new “Boris Island” plan for the Thames Estuary.

In terms of the city centre itself, tangible benefits should be seen well in advance of HS2’s Phase 1 completion in 2026. Through careful planning and integration, the project is likely to have significant regenerative benefits.

The plans for the HS2 city centre terminus, coupled with the Eastside masterplan (by Birmingham City Council and Glenn Howells Architects) and associated Enterprise Zone designations will channel private sector real estate investment into the run-down Eastside area on the edge of the city centre, generating a swathe of new construction and refurbishment projects. The district will ultimately support a new business district, hotels, a new park, university campus and Museum Quarter, anchored by a new Museum of Contemporary Art to sit alongside Thinktank (the Museum of Science and Technology).

The New York Times already cites Birmingham as a Top 20 global destination. HS2 will enhance its international reputation further, with Eastside forming the new gateway.

The city centre station itself is an opportunity to create an awe-inspiring, world class building, an emblem of a new era. However, the Department of Transport’s first published image of the station looks depressingly utilitarian, without the spatial sophistication of the masterplan imagery or the sense of drama of, say, Calatrava’s Ground Zero Interchange in Manhattan or Farrell’s South Beijing bullet train station.

Over the last few years, with the new Central Library by Mecanoo and Future System’s Selfridge’s, Birmingham has shown itself capable of commissioning world-class architecture. It would be a huge missed opportunity if HS2 brings generic design to the heart of a rejuvenated city.

Bob Ghosh is director of Birmingham-based K4 Architects

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