WITH the party conference season behind us, the next major political diary date will be the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.
In our submission to Philip Hammond will be a desire to see commitment to funding much needed rail infrastructure and – in particular – commitment to HS2 and HS3 (connecting the major northern cities from Liverpool to Hull).
Following the fallout from June’s EU referendum and subsequent Cabinet reshuffle, it is right that major investment decisions such as HS2 be reviewed by incoming ministers.
However, we do need to see a strong commitment from Government that they don’t reset the clock.
As a Chamber of Commerce representing companies which collectively employ nearly a third of the working population of the Leeds City Region, we are strong advocates for rail investment into our part of the UK.
For too long, successive governments have consistently failed to invest in Northern infrastructure and, as a result, the people of this region have to put up with overcrowded services and journey times slower than in the Victorian era.
The lack of capacity at peak times is a regular complaint from our members, with the ability for businesses to reach markets and to hire talent within commuting distance a growing concern.
Recent articles have suggested we should rethink or even scrap HS2, and additionally some commentators have claimed that HS3 should be our only priority and that if we had to make a choice between the two then this project should go to the front of the queue.
The reality is we need, and must demand, both schemes if we are to fundamentally improve rail travel across the North. “Sticking plaster” solutions for the current East Coast main line are not the answer; on a recent service to London passengers encountered a one hour delay on a two hour journey, with delays still being felt over 12 hours later.
We also need to think about the movement of freight. We hear regularly from companies that the rail network is full to bursting. If we are to achieve the goal of moving more trucks off the nation’s sclerotic road network, then the freight has to go somewhere else.
As we embark upon a new post-Brexit economic journey, the need to get our products to global markets, in particular, could not be more important. If products are being held up trying to get out of our metaphorical driveway then that can’t be good for UK plc.
The real case for HS2 has never been about speed, it is about increasing capacity and connectivity ensuring that the core cities of the North and Midlands are brought closer to each other. I would add a further thought; that HS2 is also about resilience.
We cannot under-estimate the importance of local connectivity to future high speed services, so ensuring there’s a regional plan in addition to HS2 and HS3 is vital. Our strategy must be about bringing rail services up the standards of most of our competitor countries.
Neither should we ignore the significant job opportunities that will be created over a number of years; a recent Chamber report highlights the very real commercial opportunities created by improving connectivity into city centres – no other programme will deliver on the same scale enabling us to attracting inward investment to the region.
Many talk about the disparity in infrastructure funding across the UK and highlight the fact that London receives many multiples per capita than that spent in Yorkshire. London is a global city, a major contributor to the UK economy and absolutely needs transport infrastructure fit for the 21st century.
However, if rebalancing the UK is a Government priority, then the North must play its part.
Transport for London has been highly influential in making the case for incremental investment as part of a long term strategy, we in the north must do the same. Why not “Crossrail North”?
Rather than continue to talk about schemes as individual investments, we must discuss the big picture. We must not allow ourselves to be forced into making choices between HS2, HS3 and regional rail upgrades; an holistic approach is needed.
Building HS2 without HS3 would be like building the M1 without the M62 – quite pointless. The Victorians who built our original rail network recognised the importance of good and reliable transport links; this enabled their businesses to thrive. In turn, it provided the returns which built the hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
We recognise that infrastructure projects are costly and we do not expect a blank cheque policy. Improving transport connectivity and capacity has a transformational effect over and above that captured in Treasury cost-benefit models, which focus on journey times.
No one can deny that the creation of the original rail network transformed the UK economy, way beyond the cost it took to build. Our 21st century cities need 21st century transport solutions.
Gerald Jennings is president of Leeds Chamber of Commerce.