UK: The government must complete its High Speed North vision to link London and northern England in full in order to maximise its benefits, urged West Midlands Elected Mayor Andy Street on November 19.
Street was speaking at a virtual conference on Growth & Connectivity in the West Midlands organised by the West Coast Partnership joint venture of FirstGroup and Trenitalia, which runs inter-city services between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland.
‘Most people will know I am a fervent believer in the power of rail for driving connectivity, for the economic upside and most importantly for opportunities for individuals’, Street said. He highlighted that although only in the early stages of construction, the first phase of High Speed 2 from London was already having a strong macroeconomic impact, with a survey by the Confederation of British Industry showing record levels of foreign direct investment around Birmingham since the new line was approved.
Street argued that over the last 10 years, the West Midlands regional economy has been the most successful in the country, and prior to the pandemic, Birmingham had become the only city, apart from London, where rail was the principal mode for commuter journeys to and from the city centre.
Street praised Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to approve HS2 in full earlier this year on the back of the Oakervee Review into how and whether to proceed with the programme. Describing it as ‘an incredibly brave and farsighted decision’, he nevertheless felt that ‘the real focus now must be to keep the public support’ for HS2 by reiterating its importance to the local economy, particularly through the construction phase.
Better links to the north
From an operational perspective, Street was among a number of speakers to insist that more work be done to enable HS2 to provide more trains linking the Birmingham area with Manchester and Leeds.
Under an indicative timetable produced by HS2 Ltd for modelling purposes, the station at Birmingham Interchange, located south of the city near the National Exhibition Centre, would have just one direct service per hour to and from Leeds and Manchester. Street described this proposal as ‘bonkers’, adding that he had written to HS2 Ltd Chairman Sir Allan Cook to urge plans for connectivity from the West Midlands to northern England to be improved.
However, while the government has insisted that Phase 2b of HS2 serving Leeds, Manchester and connections to the East Coast and West Coast main lines near Wigan and York would be delivered in full as per the Oakervee recommendations, there has been widespread speculation that the eastern leg through the East Midlands could be delivered on multiple stages over a longer timeframe than had been initially envisaged.
The inevitable pressure on the public finances arising from the coronavirus crisis have lent further weight to such reports, and the conference speakers acknowledged that the Treasury will be facing some tough decisions in the coming months and years.
However, Sir John Peace, Chair of the Midlands Connect body representing local authorities across central England, insisted that the case for HS2 must continue to be made. ‘We must not let a one in 200 years event affect the one in 100 years opportunity to improve national connectivity’, he believed.