YP Big Debate: MPs set out lines of battles over future of railway

As part of the Yorkshire’s Post Big Debate on the future of HS2, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin expplains how the region will benefit from high-speed rail while Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman steps up his call for the scheme to be scrapped.

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FOR

In January this year, I was at Leeds City Museum with the Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet. We were there to launch the second phase of HS2 – from Birmingham to the East Midlands, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. And we were there to underline our vision that HS2 represented the future for these great midland and northern cities.

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It was a fantastic venue in a heavyweight city – the perfect place to show how determined the government is to rebalance our economy away from London, and look at how we can grow as a country, in the North as well as the South.

But I wasn’t just in Leeds that day. I was also of course in Yorkshire. And just as HS2 will transform the economic prospects of the county’s biggest city, so it will do so for the whole county too.

Perhaps you’ll think I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Let’s not forget (and I’m sure you haven’t) that the county of Yorkshire won as many gold medals at the last Olympics as the country of Australia. And in July next year, the next British winner of the Tour De France will start pedalling from Leeds to Harrogate. Yorkshire is riding high, no doubt about that.

But actually, although I live the other side of the Dales in Derbyshire, I am and have always been passionate about improving the fortunes and prosperity of the North and Midlands.

And whatever its sporting triumphs, the biggest challenge facing Yorkshire right now is how to grow. How to create the right conditions for companies to invest. How to make businesses more competitive. How to get people back to work. And how to make hard working families better off.

Like many other parts of the UK, Yorkshire’s economy was hit hard by the 2008 recession. This government has cut the deficit by a third, and there are now positive signs that our economy is recovering. But there is still a long way to go.

So we have to look at where we can do better. Yorkshire’s prosperity in the 19th century was built upon good transport links. Today, the region still relies on the same ageing Victorian infrastructure to connect with the rest of the country. Limited capacity and inadequate connections are hampering growth.

Perhaps all this would be less of a concern if demand was not growing so fast. The number of rail passenger journeys in the UK has doubled in less than 20 years. On inter-city routes demand is rising even faster. Yet many peak hour trains on the East Coast and West Coast main lines are already overcrowded. By the middle of the next decade, they will be overwhelmed. Reliability will suffer. More passengers and freight will be forced onto congested roads. And the peak time period will spread throughout the day.

As the only region to have two main high speed stations, Yorkshire will be among the biggest beneficiaries of HS2. A recently published report from KPMG shows the new North-South railway could give a £15bn a year boost to our economy, with the North and Midlands gaining at least double the benefit of the south. Seven out of 10 jobs created by the new network will be outside London.

Yet, the fact remains that not all of Yorkshire is convinced by the case for HS2. Key councils like Bradford and Wakefield have come out against it. In their eyes, their residents will be losers rather than winners

That isn’t right and it is my job to change their mind. The fact is that HS2 will be transformative for the whole of Yorkshire. You won’t have to travel on the line to gain from the better links and the economic growth it will support. As long distance services transfer onto HS2, capacity will be released on the existing network. There will be more room for local trains and more space for rail freight, relieving congestion on roads.

HS2 will allow us to reorganise routes from Leeds to Sheffield, Wakefield and Doncaster, allowing more frequent commuter services. Other improvements could include faster services between Bradford, Wakefield and London. And we will make sure that transport links from the rest of Yorkshire to the high speed stations in Sheffield and Leeds also improve to make the most of the opportunity HS2 offers.

I champion HS2 because I don’t want to live in a country where the North feels cut off from the opportunity, ambition and prosperity that is often associated with the South.

Equally, I know it needs to work for the whole of Yorkshire, not just the places with stations. I’m convinced it can and I’m determined it will. That’s why I want to persuade every council in Yorkshire to back HS2.

Patrick McLoughlin MP is the Transport Secretary.

AGAINST

THE case against HS2 was strong enough even before it was revealed that the Government had been covering up the damage it would likely cause to many parts of the country. Now, thanks to a Newsnight freedom of information request, we know that a Government commissioned KPMG report found that 50 places across the UK will be worse off.

KPMG forecast that Cardiff will lose £68m in economic output, Aberdeen will lose over £200m, and Cambridge could lose up to £235m. Needless to say London would gain £2.8bn.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin continues to maintain that HS2 will benefit the whole country. Too many people have been taken in by this, and that includes the leaders of all three main political parties. I don’t entirely blame them because there has been a very effective PR operation and no one can deny the project has a superficial appeal.

In fact, when I first heard about HS2, I was very keen. Taking our rail system into the 21st Century, better connecting the North and South, stimulating the economy by investing in infrastructure, and creating jobs across the country – what’s not to like?

Well actually, quite a lot.

Report after report has damned HS2 as an expensive vanity project that will take decades to complete, and will result in few economic gains, almost all of which will go to already wealthy areas. Contrary to my initial hopes, these reports argue that HS2 will actually increase the relentless dominance of London over the rest of the UK.

Alongside the KPMG report, studies have been produced by the RAC Foundation, the Transport Select Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, the Institute for Economic Affairs, and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. All make stinging criticisms. The RAC report found the economic case “deeply flawed”, whilst the Transport Select Committee found “serious shortcomings” and called for a review of the entire project.

They have been joined in their criticisms by figures from across the political spectrum, including former Chancellors Alistair Darling and Nigel Lawson, not to mention many local authorities up and down the UK.

The most wounding criticism of all came in another report, this one from the independent and respected National Audit Office, which criticised the project’s unrealistic aims, poor oversight, lack of evidential support, and argued that the cost was underestimated by billions.

Indeed, as time has passed the cost of HS2 has inflated at a rate that would make a Zimbabwean wince. When the project was first mooted in 2007 we were told it would cost £10bn. By January 2012 that figure had increased to £32bn, and this year Patrick McLoughlin admitted it would cost £42bn and that was without the £7bn “contingency fund”. These are just the official estimates: the Institute of Economic Affairs put the figure at an eye-watering total of £80bn.

My party has pledged to scrap HS2 if the cost is greater than £50bn, but we should go further: let’s scrap it altogether! There are far better ways to invest this money. There is a chronic affordable housing shortage in this country, we need more hospitals and schools, and the rail lines already in place need to be renewed and supplemented.

It is much more important that we support and prioritise regional rail schemes such as The Northern Hub, which is currently underway. This programme of targeted upgrades will enable up to 700 more trains to run each day at the same time as reducing journey times, and eventually providing a £4 boost to the economy for every £1 spent. A much better bang for our buck than HS2, especially for those of us in Yorkshire.

If we do not scrap HS2, the whole of the country will have to pay for a scheme the main benefits of which will accrue to London. University College London academics have found that in other countries, including France, Spain, and Japan, high-speed rail serves the capital cities by sucking more wealth to the centre. The economic weight of Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo relative to the rest of their countries’ economies has “grown dramatically”, says Professor John Tomaney. And any new jobs created in second-tier cities like Leeds and Manchester would be at the expense of smaller regional towns such as my own constituency, Huddersfield.

At a time when living standards are being squeezed, this is a cruel burden to impose upon these towns which have been hit hardest by the economic crisis. Instead we should be investing in these areas so that young people can build a life in their home towns rather than hurtling ever faster to London in search of high skilled, high paid work.

There is now an overwhelming weight of evidence against HS2, and the findings of these studies are echoed by the opinion of the public. A rising number of people are opposed to HS2: a recent YouGov poll found that there are now more people against it than in favour, especially in the North where only 37 per cent support it. There is a growing clamour, and soon our party leaders will have to listen.

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield.