Over the past few weeks and months the HS2 project has filled many column inches and views have been expressed over numerous hours on the TV and radio by just about everyone; lets not even mention the Twitter ‘debates’. This is only natural; the £42.6 billion rail project represents one of the biggest infrastructure projects this country has ever seen and is certainly not a sum you’ll find hiding down the back of a sofa. This level of spending is, if possible, even more noteworthy given the blanket wave of cuts across every single aspect of British life in this new found age of austerity within which we are now forced to occupy.
To an extent however, I find myself am having to watch this debate from the sidelines. You may notice that the HS2 project fails to travel anywhere close to East Anglia and therefore it could perhaps be argued that the residents of this region are largely an irrelevant factor when it comes to directly assessing the impacts of HS2, whether they be positive or otherwise. People will also correctly point out that though big infrastructure structure projects cannot possibly directly influence all parts of the country, the country as a whole can indirectly profit from the overarching benefits to the nation’s economy.
Whilst this is, to an extent, true it is worth remembering three points;
1). an outlay the size of £42.6 billion will impact on the entire country no matter where the rail track is finally laid. £42.6 billion spent on HS2 is £42.6 billion that can’t be spent elsewhere;
2). it is predicted that East Anglia will ‘lose’ economic output due to the impacts of HS2 with Norfolk East alone standing to be negatively impacted to the tune of -£164m;
3). (a combination of both previous points) East Anglia’s infrastructure and transport links are ageing, inefficient and not fit for purpose for the 21st Century. Will HS2 preclude the region from a much needed infrastructure facelift?
This leads us on to the major issue that occupies many thoughts in East Anglia and it’s not HS2, although to an extent it is under the same infrastructure/transport umbrella. The A14 has been earmarked for major redevelopment and this has been welcomed across the board as it is one of the most important roads in the region, yet is blighted by congestion and delays. However, the caveat that any redevelopment will be accompanied by a toll has, as you would expect, not been so warmly received by residents and businesses in Suffolk. Indeed, it is seen to particularly penalise the Port of Felixtowe, a major asset to Suffolk and the region as a whole, as the A14 directly feeds into the Midlands, the north and south.
Ports in the region are already facing significant competition from the newly operational London Gateway with Felixtowe in particular facing pressure for its place as the United Kingdom’s premier container port. A toll tax on the A14 will be a tax on all incoming businesses therefore making Felixtowe an increasingly less attractive proposition. The London Gateway can offer a state of the art, £1.5bn port with the ability to unload six container ships at the same time as well as newer, better and, crucially, free transport links. The Port of Felixtowe has said it is confident it can complete with its new rival and competition is by no means a bad thing. The difficulty is that the two ports will not be operating on a level playing field if a toll tax on the Port of Felixtowe’s primary route is introduced and so naturally, firms will look towards a cheaper, profit margin protecting alternative.
The impact of a substantial loss of business into Felixtowe would have severe ramifications across the region. The port handles more than 3.4million container units and 4,000 ships per year with 90 services to and from 365 ports around the world. This is no small number and represents a significant contribution to the regional economy with thousands of people employed in and around the port, both directly and indirectly.
It is not just the companies who deal directly with the Port of Felixtowe that will be hit hard by a toll tax; businesses in Suffolk are currently thriving and competing on a national and indeed international stage and a toll would impact them too. Companies like Aspall Cyder, Adnams, Greene King and other non-alcoholic businesses such as Paddy & Scott’s coffee, C & K Meats and my own employer Mosscliff Environmental have been success stories in difficult economic conditions. We are lucky that this region has produced such incredible entrepreneurship and innovation and we must sustain and support these businesses and not try and suffocate their viability. If we delay on vital infrastructure upgrades or tax key transport links then we risk stifling growth in this region. This will cost jobs and ward off outward investment from an area which, given its proximity to London, should be a hub for economic growth.
In this regard I cautiously welcome George Osborne’s setting up of a task force which will look to invest £550 million in the Great Eastern Main Line that could cut up to 25% off journey times and would greatly benefit Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Cautiously is the key word here however; until that £550 million has been signed off on that dotted line and the first train is racing down some shiny new tracks I’ll be keeping that champagne reserved for the announcement of major infrastructure projects in Suffolk on ice. Then again it has been so long that my metaphorical ice has turned into a pool of slightly dirty looking, lukewarm water.
In comparison to a £42.6 billion project, a toll tax on the A14 seems like small fry and some may argue it is a small price to pay for an important and much needed investment on Suffolk’s premier road. I can assure you however, that this is not a few farmers grumbling about paying a few quid on a toll. District councils across the county, the County Council, Ipswich Borough Council, Suffolk and Norfolk Chambers of Commerce, MPs and many more have all opposed this toll. There is widespread agreement, cross party agreement, that the toll is bad for business and bad for the county.
Suffolk is now much more than tractors and fields; it has bred some of the brightest and best new businesses in the country, home to some of the most vitally important ports in the UK and the source of major foreign investment. A toll tax on the A14 would smack of short termism and a basic lack of understanding of the local economy; it is not hyperbole to suggest that much of Suffolk’s economic future rests on these key infrastructure decisions over the next couple of years. We all want improvements to the A14 but a toll would have a detrimental effect on Suffolk’s economy and businesses and it is quite frankly wholly unfair that of all the new road schemes, only the A14 will be tolled with no alternative route. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer needs to find an extra £1 billion then perhaps he could knock a bit off the £42.6 billion HS2. I’m sure no one would notice.