YP Big Debate: The political train of thought on faster rail

As the Yorkshire Post’s Big Debate on the pluses and minuses of bringing high-speed rail to the region continues to gather pace, Political Correspondent James Reed has spoken to influential figures in our town halls to gauge the level of support for the controversial £50bn engineering project.

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MINISTERS have been urged to make clear how HS2 will benefit the whole region if they are to secure unanimous support for the project from across Yorkshire.

While there are few outright opponents among Yorkshire’s key political figures, there are sceptics who remain to be convinced and supporters who believe the positive impact of the £50bn project has yet to be properly explained.

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Bradford Council leader David Green said: “I think it is a massive amount of money to be investing in a one-shot deal and I think there needs to be further debate and further evidence provided on the economic benefits on a regional basis rather than relying on some sort of trickle-down effect from those areas where HS2 will be stopping.”

Kirklees Council leader Mehboob Khan added: “I’m pro-HS2, pro-investment, but what has been suggested doesn’t benefit Wakefield or Bradford.

“It benefits Kirklees but as part of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority we have got to put our own parochialism behind us and look at what is best for all of our areas.

“With the transpennine electrification it could become quicker for people in Kirklees to go to London via Manchester. I want it to be quicker via Wakefield and Leeds.”

While support for HS2 is arguably strongest in Sheffield and Leeds, where stations will be built, there is evidence of backing further afield.

Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton said: “If South Yorkshire is to achieve the ambitions set out in its growth plan, the whole region will need to grow by attracting more private sector businesses, more jobs, and by growing its digital industries and renewable energy sources. HS2 is an opportunity for us to achieve this through a connected region, providing a good link to Barnsley is provided.”

Under current plans, the HS2 line will stop several miles short of York, although trains will be able to complete their journey on the existing network.

York Council leader James Alexander, who represents North Yorkshire on the HS2 project board, said: “With access to the country’s capital in just 83 minutes, the HS2 programme would mean York will become an even greater hub for tourism and business.

“International rail connectivity is also a long-term opportunity for many along the East Coast main line and I know colleagues across the East Coast main line share this view.”

Where there is support, there are still vigorous debates in the region over the route HS2 will take. Nowhere is this demonstrated more than in South Yorkshire where Sheffield City Council is campaigning for the proposed station to be moved from Meadowhall to Victoria in the city centre.

Moves are now being made to unite authorities in the south behind a single proposal and Leigh Bramall, Sheffield Council cabinet member for business, skills and development, is clear about the prize at stake.

“HS2 is fundamental for UK plc. I think HS2 is important in retaining UK competitiveness and moving people as quickly as possible to all parts of the country is critical. Other countries have invested heavily in this technology and continue to do so.

“We want to play our part in making that argument while also making sure all the different elements have been looked at to maximise the benefits to the Sheffield City Region.”

Critics, supporters and sceptics alike, council leaders across the region are unified in their concern that HS2 should not replace other investment needed in the region’s transport network. Doncaster Mayor Ros Jones said: “It should be recognised that already Doncaster has an excellent connection to London via the East Coast main line and our priority is to ensure that investment is maintained here.

“Therefore our focus will be aimed at pressing the Government to bring forward much-needed investment to the east coast such as the new 140mph train fleet due to be delivered from 2018 which will increase speed, seating capacity and frequency to London, Leeds, York and Scotland.”