Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Let's have the emotional and excitable case for HS2, please

It’s tempting to say we’d like to see a grown-up, mature and evidence-based case made for High Speed Rail, but to be honest I’d also like to see a quirky, excitable and emotional debate too.

I was at a special event with the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin on Tuesday evening. There he was presented with a well argued case for HS2 from an august group of business leaders from around the North West, notably Jurgen Maier of Siemens, the current chairman of the North West Business Leadership Team. And not for McLaughlin the coded messages about blank cheques transmitted a week earlier by Ed Balls. No, the Tories are determined that HS2 will happen and that the whole country will benefit from a well delivered project.

The case for HS2 has been rather meekly made so far. I speak to many businesses and the biggest gripe is that they fail to see the relevance of a long term project that will get you to London quicker, this from Lawrence Jones of UK Fast is typical: “We don’t need to get to London quicker. It’s a waste of money when we don’t have enough to go around, and it’s not all about London, which already gets the lion’s share of all our taxes.”

Then the argument about capacity on the West Coast main line seems to get confused with how many empty seats there are in First Class during off peak periods. So when Labour’s Andy Burnham met a few of us recently he was slightly taken aback by the lack of enthusiasm for HS2 and the weakening of the supposed cross party consensus.
People also feel that budgets in their billions sound like an awful lot of money. It is a lot of money. But it is still a modestly small proportion of the rail budget if you take a long term view and measure it against all the other transport plans.
And after the dripping of negativity from Ed Balls at Labour conference, it must have been encouraging for city council leaders like Sir Richard Leese in Manchester to see beyond party politics and welcome a Conservative government supporting a project he feels passionately about, because he feels it will benefit Manchester.
Richard has acknowledged too that he’s been criticised in his own party for sharing platforms with Tory ministers: “Today I shared a platform with the Secretary of State for Transport and had no problem whatsoever. We were talking about HS2, something I passionately believe in, and something that like all long-term infrastructure programmes needs cross-party consensus to deliver. Sometimes it’s more difficult but at the end of the day they are the party of government. Every day they make decisions that impact on this city and its citizens. My job involves standing up for Manchester and that means I should take every opportunity to argue Manchester’s case with the decision makers in Whitehall.”
That’s why I want a bit of vision and passion in the debate too. I like trains. I like new technology and I get excited about dramatic advances in how we live. I like a bit of vision and bold thinking. Indeed it was heartening to hear George Osborne evoke the spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest of British engineers.
So in making the case for HS2 it has been important to hear how it cost £10bn to improve the current main line. As prime minister David Cameron said at his conference, why settle for less than the best if improvements are needed anyway?
“The fact is this: the West Coast Mainline is almost full. We have to build a new railway and the choice is between another old style Victorian one or a high speed one. Just imagine if someone had said no, you can’t build the M1 or the Severn Bridge, imagine how that would be hobbling our economy today.
“HS2 is about bringing the north and the south together in the national endeavour. Because think how much more we could do with the pistons firing in all parts of our economy.”
But there’s the rub, if this is a North-South thing, then why not build it from here first? I also share the frustration that the consultation and then the timetable for delivering HS2 is “painfully slow”. Patrick McLoughlin revealed to us on Tuesday that the new chairman of HS2, Sir David Higgins, is keen to quicken the pace too.
As the Birmingham to Manchester dimension is in open consultation at the moment I believe it’s important to make the case for building it sooner and to start the work in Manchester, particularly linking the city centre to the Airport.
I commend the report from the North West Business Leadership Team, which can be downloaded here. The main point is that HS2 has to be part of a range of measures that tackle problems in how road, rail and air transport functions effectively. It requires a fresh way of looking at the economy of the country, it requires a shift in thinking about how we view the country, it requires, as we’ve been saying for a while, a Northern Revolution.

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