CBI boss Carolyn Fairbairn on why HS2 is good for Yorkshire

CBI boss Carolyn Fairbairn makes the case for High Speed Rail to push the Northern Powerhouse

The boss of Britain’s biggest business organisation has strongly backed the HS2 rail scheme arriving in Leeds and said Yorkshire should play a major role in the Northern Powerhouse.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, told The Yorkshire Post that HS2 could make a huge contribution towards the wealth of Yorkshire. HS2 stands for High Speed 2, a railway line which will directly connect London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester.

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“We back the HS2 scheme arriving in Leeds by 2033 very strongly,” she said in an exclusive interview for Yorkshire Vision.

“The contribution that HS2 could make to Leeds and Yorkshire is terrific. I think that sometimes sight is lost of the importance of connectivity across the North.

New Director-General of The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Carolyn Fairbairn poses for a photograph during a photo-call in central London on November 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NIKLAS HALLE'N (Photo credit should read NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images)

“It is seen as just about a North/South artery whereas we know the connection between Leeds and Manchester and all the parts of the North is what is really going to be unlocked by HS2.”

Ms Fairbairn said that even though work on the new site on the South Bank in Leeds has not yet started, the surrounding area has already started to see much-needed redevelopment.

“We are seeing a sense of what the multiplied benefits will be when HS2 does eventually come to town,” she said.

“We completely back it. We think it will unlock regional connectivity in a really serious way.”

The merits of HS2 - and its benfits for the North - continue to be the subject of fierce political debate.

False choice

Ms Fairbairn dismissed arguments that HS2 should be scrapped in favour of greater rail connectivity in the North.

“I think that this choice between regional connectivity and HS2 is just a false choice,” she argued.

“Transport for London’s recent report made it absolutely clear that you wouldn’t get northern connectivity properly without HS2 so we continue to be really big supporters.”

Carolyn Fairburn, the new director General of the CBI seen here at their offices in London, 2nd November 2015. Commissioned by Pip Brooking for Business Voice

Turning to the Northern Powerhouse, Ms Fairbairn said it is essential for the wealth of Yorkshire that the Northern Powerhouse is given full backing from the Government and other parties.

“We have been huge champions of the Northern Powerhouse for years,” she said.

“Four years ago when I arrived we did the work around mutual productivity and just recognised this enormous potential in the North from productivity improvement coming from education, coming from infrastructure and how much opportunity that there was.”

Northern Powerhouse

Ms Fairbairn said the Northern Powerhouse embodies this and it leads to a coherent strategy.

She said she held an in-depth discussion about what the Northern Powerhouse could do for the North when she met the British Ambassador to China, Barbara Woodward.

“We had a terrific conversation about what the next phase of the Northern Powerhouse promotion could be in China because it really has punched through.

“It’s a brand that has really made it for the Chinese,” said Ms Fairbairn.

“The Chinese always knew about London and they were typically investors in the South of England. What they’re saying now is they are recognising the power of the universities, the strengths of the advanced manufacturing capability and they are really looking at what the potential could be for a new wave of investment in the Northern Powerhouse.”

Ms Fairbairn held talks with Ms Woodward about how the CBI and the embassy could work together to promote the connection between Northern companies and China from both sides.

“We are huge fans,” said Ms Fairbairn. “We do think it needs a real strategy – the idea of a local, national and international strategic approach where the local approach is really led by industrial strategies that capture the opportunities at quite a granular level.

“There is then the promotion of the Northern Powerhouse within Whitehall and Westminster and we are very committed to that.”

Yorkshire’s strengths

Talking about Yorkshire’s strengths as a leading region in Britain, Ms Fairbairn said the county has a huge number of assets.

“I travel a lot around the UK as part of my role. The really striking thing about Yorkshire is an incredibly strong sense of identity and scale. Here’s a £110bn economy and one that is bigger than 11 EU countries and yet it has a single and very strong and very determined identity,” she said.

“Of course it’s much more than that. I think Yorkshire is a very rich economy in terms of universities, the connectivity is improving and will improve, and there’s a real diversity.”

She added that the county also has unique strengths in its banking and accountancy firms.

“I am always struck in Yorkshire by how strong the financial professional services are,” she said.

“You’ve also got the advanced manufacturing in Sheffield. You’ve got real strengths, huge strengths in renewables in the Humber, which is one of the jewels in the UK’s crown in terms of future growth.

“Then of course you’ve got the fantastic tourism. How fantastic it is to see the Tour de France becoming the Tour de Yorkshire.”

She said that despite the strong sense of identity in Yorkshire, the county celebrates its diversity.

“It’s a very diverse region and you can see it coming through. It’s been interesting to watch some of the new investments coming in – including the fact that Boeing have chosen to put their first manufacturing plant in Europe in Sheffield,” she said.

Among her former jobs, Ms Fairbairn was a member of the BBC’s executive board. She was responsible for delivery of the BBC’s services to viewers and managed a budget of £150m.

“Of course one investment very dear to my heart, because of my background, is that Channel 4 has chosen to come to Leeds. I wasn’t surprised,” she said.

“We were ruthlessly neutral in terms of where Channel 4 chose, but the vibrancy of the city, the talent base, the creativity as well are huge strengths for Yorkshire.”


2019 should be the year that Yorkshire gets a “fantastic” devolution deal and the Government should say what it has against it so the problems can be solved, according to the head of the CBI, Britain’s biggest business organisation.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said that every month that goes by without a deal is a wasted month.

“I think 2019 should be the year when a fantastic Yorkshire devolution deal is done,” she told Yorkshire Vision.

“There is £1.7bn of Transforming Cities money out there and Yorkshire should be getting some of it.

“Yorkshire should be forging its own skills strategy. It should be driving forward on the connectivity agenda. Every month that is wasted is a month that that isn’t happening. So let’s make 2019 the year it happens.”

She said that two things need to happen.

“The Government owes it to Yorkshire to be clear about what it didn’t like and that should be happening immediately. It should have happened already,” she said.

“The Government needs to explain, really clearly, what its criteria are and where they saw the One Yorkshire deal as having shortcomings.

“And then we need to respond. I think we need to listen. What was wrong? How can it be improved? How can business play a role in responding to whatever those concerns are and then get the deal done by the end of the year?hs2’S”

She said the CBI is very supportive of a proper devolution deal for Yorkshire.