Exclusive: Shout out for London rail link, Minister tells North

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CRITICS will succeed in blocking a high-speed rail network unless the North becomes more vocal in backing the project, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has warned as he visits Yorkshire to “mobilise” support.

Mr Hammond warned opponents of the project in the South he was not being worn down by their protests – saying “my resolve is hardening” – but said others must make the case as well.

In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post ahead of a visit to Sheffield today, he admitted that without the high speed network the Government’s drive to close the North-South divide was likely to falter and said he was convinced the balance between costs and benefits “has tipped very much in favour of the benefits”.

Challenging supporters of the line to express their backing, he said: “Let’s be clear about this. If everybody in Birmingham and north of Birmingham stays silent and those in Buckinghamshire keep shouting, then their voices will be heard, their voices will prevail. We have to have a balanced debate where the people who are going to be the beneficiaries of the project speak up.”

Mr Hammond hosts a seminar in Sheffield today to discuss the project – which will cut up to 50 minutes off journey times from Leeds and Sheffield to London – with businesses and civic leaders.

A consultation is under way into the £32bn project to build a 225mph line from London to Birmingham before constructing two branches north, one through South Yorkshire to Leeds and the other to Manchester. The Leeds link would be open by 2032-33.

The Yorkshire Post has been supporting the scheme through the Fast Track to Yorkshire campaign, but the case for the line has been drowned out recently by vocal protests from people – mainly in the Chilterns – angry about its route through the countryside.

Mr Hammond insisted the protests were “very localised” and that Britain “cannot afford not to invest in its future.”

But he said that while a “small number of people” were very focused in their opposition, it was more difficult getting a “much wider, looser, group” who will benefit from the project to speak out. “These seminars are about mobilising public opinion, getting the debate going in South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire about the benefits HS2 will bring,” he said.

“When you sit down and talk with business leaders and civic leaders in the northern cities they are very clear this is a game-changer. The problem is getting people out there mobilised, saying it out loud.”

Convinced about the benefits of the project, he said the route would mean there was “much less of a North-South divide”. Not building the line would make it “very difficult” to successfully rebalance the economy and boost areas like Yorkshire, which lag behind London and the South-East.

Adamant about his commitment to the project, Mr Hammond said: “If anything, my resolve is hardening because I’m completely convinced by the economic benefits, and everything I see coming out of France, Spain, China, Italy, Germany, is reinforcing that view.

“On the other side of the equation I am now much more confident that the impact on the Chilterns and the rest of the route has been hugely exaggerated.”

Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew, a keen supporter of the network, took up Mr Hammond’s call and said: “The noise of this small group of people in some parts of the country needs to be a wake-up call for the rest of us in the north who really want this. We’ve got to do our bit to show our enthusiasm for this massive investment and vote of confidence in the North of England.”