New rail link a safe bet, insist business leaders

Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond
Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond
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NORTHERN business leaders have responded angrily after southern critics of a high-speed rail network linking Leeds and London claimed they have been blinded by the project and do not understand it is a “reckless” £32bn gamble.

Heavy wooing of business leaders in Yorkshire and the North West by Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and pro-high-speed campaigners left them ignorant of flaws in the project, claims the leader of Buckinghamshire County Council.

Martin Tett said most businesses started liking the scheme until they found out the costs when “the rubber hits the road”.

He was speaking as a string of the project’s opponents told a House of Commons inquiry it was poor value for money and called for the cash to be spent on other transport improvements instead.

“It’s a question of giving them a balanced argument and I know that the Secretary of State and pro-HS2 groups have actually wooed Northern businesses very heavily,” said Coun Tett.

“I can completely understand if you’re only hearing one side of the argument – and indeed they don’t understand the costs that will accrue to them and to the economy – why they might intuitively come out in favour.”

But Yorkshire businesses have dismissed his claims and reiterated their backing for the network which will link London to Birmingham, South Yorkshire, Leeds and Manchester by 2033, cutting journey times from this region to the capital by 45 minutes.

Ian Williams, director of policy and business representation at Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chambers of Commerce, said the organisation “strongly disagrees” with Coun Tett’s comments.

“Businesses have been well informed on high-speed rail and have a comprehensive understanding of its business case and the economic benefits that it would bring to the region. High Speed Rail shouldn’t be perceived as a cost, but as an investment.”

Yesterday’s session was part of a Transport Select Committee inquiry into the scheme, which Mr Hammond has described as the “last best hope” of cracking the North-South divide and which is backed by the Yorkshire Post’s Fast Track to Yorkshire campaign.

Coun Tett said he initially thought the high-speed project “sounds really good” but changed his mind after studying the evidence. He claimed the cost would end up being “well in excess of” the budgeted £32bn, said claims it would tackle the North-South divide were “sketchy” and branded it a “reckless” gamble.

He described as “offensive” the attempt by Mr Hammond and the official Yes to High Speed campaign to paint all critics of the scheme as Nimbys – Not in my back yard protesters – although he admitted some people objected simply because it would run near their home.

Lord Wolfson, chief executive of retailer Next, claimed the money should be poured into road improvements instead because the benefits would be far greater – but said high-speed rail would be more attractive if the network were built more quickly.

David Begg, Director of the Campaign for High Speed Rail said it was clear those opposed to high-speed rail were “floundering to provide genuine reasons against this scheme”.

Speaking to a forum of business leaders in Leeds last night, however, he warned the project was a long way from a done deal. “Those against this are people who are economically very privileged. Creating jobs and boosting income is not high on their priority list.

“But they are influential, well resourced and articulate. We need a strong, united voice for the North for this to succeed.”