Comment: HS2 is going ahead, but the battle for hearts and minds continues

By Alex Burrows

With two high speed rail bills in the Queen's Speech it would be fair to say that the government is giving a clear message that Britain is finally getting a national high speed rail network. Currently we have 68 miles connecting the Channel Tunnel with St Pancras International station. High Speed 2 will significantly increase this. The hybrid bill announced paves the way for Phase 1 to gain parliament's approval to proceed, while the preparatory bill will authorise continued spending and work to plan for Phase 2 (connecting the West Midlands with the North West and Yorkshire) – as well as all further phases of work to continue the development of the national high speed rail network.

It is well-known that significant preparatory and design work is already under way for high speed rail. This will become apparent when the hybrid bill for Phase 1 from London to the West Midlands is laid before parliament at the end of this year. But the coming of high speed rail is a huge opportunity to create many new jobs, including apprenticeships, to bring a large number of skills to the workforce and to engage with a wide supply chain across the country in need of the contracts that a major infrastructure project will bring.

At an event on High Speed 2, organised by Insight Public Affairs and held straight after the Queen's Speech, we heard from shadow rail minister Lilian Greenwood, HS2 Ltd's director of communication strategy Paul Chapman and PwC director Charles Johnson-Ferguson on what this really means for British businesses.

Importantly, for business confidence, we heard a clear statement of firm cross-party support for High Speed 2 from the shadow rail minister. Proper parliamentary scrutiny is vital which includes ensuring that British businesses derive maximum benefit from an infrastructure project on this scale.

There are two key areas that need focussing on:

(1) The transport and connectivity benefits – for High Speed 2 to succeed, it needs to include significant planning and investment in local and regional access into the stations. Furthermore, the use of the released capacity on the current rail network for more services connecting all our towns and cities, along with more rail freight journeys, must be properly planned.

(2) The economic benefits – much is said of the business case, but what really matters are the real benefits that will come to much of the country in terms of bringing new jobs and skills to areas both during and after construction. In addition, the development and regeneration potential is key and learning how to capture these wider benefits is a long term task for HS2 Ltd. HS2 Ltd are also now focussed on using high speed rail as a national 'engine for growth' and are working with cities, LEPs and businesses to drive forward the economic growth agenda – a crucial strategic development.

Interestingly, this particular discussion crystallised the real issue at stake on high speed rail. It comes down to being able to clearly communicate what the project is and the benefits it will bring. The rest of the world is building (or has already built) high speed rail networks because their role and value is agreed and proven. But in Britain we are seeing a battle being waged over perceptions rather than facts. It is too late now to expect a rational and sober discussion over the value of vital national infrastructure projects – especially when it includes very real consequences along its route, as all infrastructure will do by its very nature.

The political discourse on high speed rail is now focussed on proper scrutiny of a project that the three main political parties all agree is needed. The judicial reviews were also about scrutiny of how the project was being developed rather than any kind of existential discussion as to the need. However the battleground over hearts and minds remains because it has not been closed down by effective use of the facts to make the case. This looks like it is about to change with the role of High Speed 2 in bringing a huge amount of demand for goods and services for British businesses coming rapidly to the forefront of the debate – we will hopefully now see a clearer picture of why this project is vital to UK plc.

Alex Burrows is head of transport and infrastructure at Insight Public Affairs.

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