Corporate giants backing the HS2 rail link

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BIG beasts from corporate Yorkshire have come out strongly in favour of the HS2 rail link between London and the North.

Business leaders evoked the spirit of Victorian railway pioneers in arguing for the “vital” investment in public transport infrastructure.

Their intervention comes as a new survey shows that chairmen of FTSE 100 companies are becoming increasingly sceptical about the economic case for the project.

A separate survey of 52 Yorkshire SMEs by accountancy firm Haines Watts revealed that 67 per cent are against HS2 with many owner-managers wanting to see more immediate investment in regional schemes.

The Yorkshire Post is offering a platform for the region’s business leaders to share their views on the high-speed link via the Big Debate series.

Andy Clarke, president and CEO of supermarket giant Asda, said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that improving public transport infrastructure is vital to economic growth. Britain has always been a nation of railway pioneers – our railways are some of the oldest in the world.

“Back then there will have been the same opposition to rail improvements that we’re seeing today, but we’re still benefiting from the infrastructure our ancestors established all those years ago. As a region, and as a nation, we need to be brave again.”

Kevin Whiteman, chairman of Yorkshire Water, said that making the case for HS2 has been difficult, which can often be the case where the costs are high and the benefits too long term for current voters to value.

“But such investment is the foundation stone of all other economic development within any region,” he said. “The Victorians clearly understood this and ensured that quality infrastructure connected and underpinned our emerging economies. This foresight and ambition created much of the infrastructure that we still depend on today.

“We take it for granted, making us blind to the value of such investment and complacent in terms of the needs for ongoing maintenance and new investment.”

He said HS2 is not about reducing journey times to London but a “leap of faith” that high quality infrastructure is essential to a modern civilised society.

Chris Hearld, senior partner at the Leeds office of accountancy firm KPMG, said: “In the context of a widening North-South divide, with corrosive effects on the UK and our regional economy, investment in connectivity with the potential to boost Yorkshire’s productivity should be grabbed with both hands by the business community.”

He said national infrastructure development is critical to ensuring that Yorkshire businesses can better tap into UK and global opportunities.

Arif Ahmad, senior partner at the Leeds office of Big Four rival PwC, urged the region to get behind HS2.

He said: “If we don’t take up this opportunity to support HS2, the inward investment will go elsewhere, either to other regions, or, for UK plc, to other countries which are making major investments in their infrastructure.”

Ed Anderson, chairman of Yorkshire Building Society, said the real benefits for the UK will come once Scotland is connected to HS2, as well as the North of England.

But Julian Wild, corporate finance partner at leading Hull law firm Rollits, said HS2 will benefit London and the big metropolitan areas like Manchester and Leeds, but will do nothing for other important urban centres where millions of people live, work, create wealth and pay taxes.

Almost half of the FTSE 100 chairmen who responded to a survey now oppose investment in HS2, according to executive search company Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann.

The survey found that attitudes have hardened over the last 12 months with more than a third of respondents being less in favour of HS2 than they were a year ago and only 33 per cent believing that the project should go ahead.

One chairman described the scheme as “increasingly lunatic”, but another made the pragmatic case for investment, saying “tiny little island, 70m humans and negligible spare rail capacity – join up the dots”.

Scepticism from the SMEs

Yorkshire SMEs might be more supportive of HS2 if they believed that Westminster really did want to do more to stimulate greater prosperity in the region, a leading adviser to owner-managed businesses has suggested.

Peter Bancroft, of accountancy firm Haines Watts, said many of the respondents to his survey felt that the HS2 money could and should be spent addressing other transport issues to bring major benefits to Yorkshire within a much shorter period.

He added: “If it were the case that these projects were not mutually exclusive... I wonder if there still would be such an anti feeling?”