A transport system to truly unite the cities of the North into a single political powerhouse and give London and other European metropoles a run for their money. But a transport system that ultimately has its users at its heart, and will galvanise public confidence.
That’s the double dream that Leeds and its neighbours should be aiming for as the journey to HS2 gathers pace, experts and policymakers have been told.
They were meeting earlier today (Monday) at Leeds Town Hall for the launch of a major report investigating how the Government’s planned HS2 high-speed rail link will shape the country’s cities and regions.
HS2 will run from Leeds to Birmingham and London, with services due to start in 2032.
The city has already begun preparing for its arrival, with proposals to transform Leeds’s main station into a ‘hub’ connecting HS2 to existing rail services and the sprawling South Bank regeneration masterplan.
The report by the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) lays out a number of key recommendations to help Leeds and other cities in phase two maximise on the economic and urban growth potential HS2 will bring.
At today’s launch, words like “connectivity”, “integration” and “collaboration” came up again and again and the message to civic leaders across the region was clear: work together to achieve your collective potential.
John Worthington MBE, ITC Commissioner and chair of its high-speed rail panel, who is one of the key contributors to the study, used a successful example from the Netherlands to explain how cities can work together with “each doing something different but collaborating to make one ‘place’”.
“It is clear from 30 years of experience across Europe that high-speed rail can be a catalyst for economic growth, but seldom the driver,” he said.
“To capture the full value of this investment requires a shared vision, collaboration between different interests and a place where people wish to come and stay.
“The ITC has drawn insights from existing experience to inform and inspire the cities served by HS2 to capture the opportunity and achieve each city’s distinctive aspirations while improving livelihoods.”
He stressed HS2 was a 20 or 30 year project and “there will be lots of ups and downs until then, so be responsive to change”.
And he urged decision-makers to strive to “make stations that ‘arrive somewhere’, rather than ‘going back’ somewhere”.
The 88 page ITC report lays out a number of specific recommendations for Leeds and its city region partners.
And tellingly, it stresses the need to develop the HS2 vision alongside improvements to the existing public transport network.
“In order to create optimum accessibility to all residents, the development of the underlying (public) transport network is key,” the influential report says.
“Embedding high-speed rail in the local and regional transport network will be a necessary condition for maximising the benefit from this investment.
“For Leeds, the best possible integration of an HS2 station is that it is futureproofed for developments in city transportation - buses, bicycles, cars.”
The report notes that the Leeds HS2 station’s siting on the South Bank, a “former industrial area ripe for regeneration”, could be a genuine “catalyst”.
It also stresses the need for the development of a distinct Leeds City Region “narrative”, something to “bind” the region’s joint assets and “translate them into a comprehensive story”.
The launch of the report comes just four days after Leeds’s much heralded £250m trolleybus plan was scrapped following an independent inspector’s damning findings.
There was barely a mention of the trolleybus in the speeches at Leeds Town Hall today, as the decades-in-the-making project was kicked into the long grass.
However the spectre of NGT still loomed, as Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin and councillor Judith Blake retreated for a closed doors meeting after their keynote speeches.
The Leeds council leader had earlier pledged to ask the Secretary of State for reassurances that the £173m Government investment earmarked for the trolleybus would stay in Leeds - and that an alternative scheme would be allowed to be brought forward quickly.
Coun Blake told today’s conference that it was time for Leeds to “get to grips” with its transport needs and provision - and cited the recent announcement by Burberry of a new factory on the South Bank as an indication that the city is on the right track overall.
Asked for assurances that the needs of Leeds people would not get lost in the bigger Northern Powerhouse picture, she said: “On the back of HS2, it’s about the connectivity around Leeds, not just the key routes of Leeds, but how people go to visit their friends and family and how they get to work in the morning.
“Those things are really important. But increasingly, people in Leeds will be looking to go to work in Huddersfield, Halifax, Manchester, Sheffield. The distances are shrinking in people’s minds. The big schemes such as HS2 unlock these conversations.”
Asked if speed was of the essence - both in terms of mode and delivery - for public transport improvements for Leeds, she said: “We are getting the building blocks in place. We have got Transport for the North moving forward as a statutory body.
“We are already having detailed conversations with our other partner authorities across the North, and business leaders are starting to talk to each other in a way that we haven’t seen before.”
Meanwhile Mr McLoughlin told the YEP the important thing from last week’s trolleybus decision was that “the money that was going to be used for that is available for other projects”.
“One of the things I am hoping to talk to [Leeds City Council] about is how they are going to take that particular proposal forward,” he said.
“There was an inspector’s report, that’s what did for the trolleybus and I’m not allowed to comment any more on that other than to say ‘that’s out’.
“But we are now going to make sure that the best use is made of that money and I want to talk to the city council about it.”
Mr McLoughlin said the ITC’s HS2 report had come “at a good time to come up to Leeds and talk about the project”.
“There’s been various speculation saying the project isn’t going to go ahead and things like that - I hope today I have been able to put that record straight,” he said.
“I’m very committed to high speed rail for Leeds and for the other cities on the Eastern side of the route.
“To me it’s very important, and it’s about the long term future. It’s about making sure that Leeds and other major cities get the same opportunities.”
Stressing the role of the big Northern cities like Leeds in generating wealth at a national level, he said HS2 will bring “transformational benefits to the economy of the whole country” as well as “increased connectivity to help rebalance our economy”.
“That is why it’s crucial that cities and regions along the route take full advantage and develop plans that will attract investment and help people access jobs,” he said.
“We have already seen places like Birmingham, Solihull and London set out ambitious plans.
“Meanwhile major companies like HSBC and Burberry are choosing to locate in HS2 cities.
“We know that good transport doesn’t just help people get around, it helps them get on.”