YP Opinion: Ministers must win over sceptics

HOW times change. When a high-speed rail link from London to the North was first conceived five years ago, the economic case appeared so compelling that Yorkshire businesses and politicians campaigned with one voice to ensure this region was at the fulcrum of Britain’s HS2 transport revolution.

Fast forward five years and it is indicative of the scale of the mishandling of HS2 that many of the scheme’s original proponents now question the benefits – and costs. The political consensus is in danger of ending, the country is torn in two and Yorkshire risks becoming divided between supporters and sceptics.

Yet this opposition masks the simple fact that Britain’s rail infrastructure is already at breaking point – and new track capacity is desperately needed to accommodate passenger numbers which are already at record levels. If the Government back-tracks now, what kind of train network will be bequeathed to future generations?

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This is why the Yorkshire Post is launching The Big Debate – there needs to be a far closer dialogue between HS2’s supporters, like Yorkshire’s business communities, and residents in communities like Church Fenton which will be directly affected by the construction of a new railway viaduct, for example.

We will be using this new forum, both through the columns of these pages and via our digital platforms, to ensure that Yorkshire’s voice is heard loud and clear by those Cabinet ministers who travelled to Leeds in January to launch HS2 to launch a new age of the train 50 years after the disastrous Beeching cuts of 1963.

They included Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who has the humility to concede that he has to win back the support of people in key cities like Bradford and Wakefield where council leaders now fear that their residents “will be losers rather than winners”. It is to be hoped the publication next week of the updated strategic case will go someway towards achieving that goal.

Given that Yorkshire will benefit from two high-speed stations at Leeds and Sheffield, this unease reveals the extent to which Ministers have lost vital momentum because of concerns about cost and a lack of clarity about whether the central mission of HS2 is to cut journey times, increase capacity on the railways or narrow the North-South divide. That said, Labour is far from blameless – witness Ed Balls’s politicking on this matter.

But Mr McLoughlin will discover, as the debate grows, that he needs to take on board two other points. First, Ministers have given the impression that they’re preoccupied with schemes, like new tunnels, to minimise the environmental impact in the leafy Chilterns.

The equally valid concerns of communities on the outskirts of Leeds must not be ignored. This needs addressing when a final decision on the route of the scheme’s second phase is agreed.

Second, the Transport Secretary should confront head-on those who are concerned about the scheme’s costs, and make clear that HS2 is effectively a continuation of the funding now being made available for London’s Crossrail scheme, and offer cast-iron guarantees that this investment will not compromise improvements to commuter services.

There will be other issues – The Big Debate wants to gather feedback from as many people as possible – but the point is this: David Cameron, Patrick McLoughlin and other senior politicians need to be far more effective in galvanising business and public support if HS2 is to remain firmly on track.