Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As someone who fought tooth and nail to keep HS2 on track, last week’s decision to shelve the project from Birmingham to Manchester was very disappointing. Despite determined lobbying, the Prime Minister chose to move in a different direction, refocusing HS2 money to invest in local networks in the north and midlands.
I make no apologies for taking up this cause. As Mayor of the West Midlands, it is my job to put place before party when necessary and do what I think is right for local residents, communities and businesses. This was a project worth fighting for, and the principle of a North-South high speed link is still worth pursuing.
I want to use this column to explain why I believe that, after 15 years of cross-party consensus and buy-in from the regions, we must leave no stone unturned before giving up on high speed rail to Manchester and why (responding to Rishi Sunak’s crucial offer) I will continue to work constructively to make it happen.
Why am I not willing to give up on this issue? Because it is project that I have always believed in, and remains right in the long term despite the acknowledged difficulties in its delivery.
HS2 was about uniting the nation by building a transport spine connecting its major cities, a totemic project linking and levelling up communities at the same time. It was about delivering for the Northern Powerhouse and creating a more balanced national economy. It was about thinking big, showing ambition and building something for future generations.
Of course, as West Midlands Mayor, I also wanted our region to sit at the heart of the UK’s transport network, and reap all the benefits that would bring. Thanks to ferocious lobbying, that is still the case.
Only three weeks ago, a proposal surfaced that would have downgraded the first phase of HS2, with it running from London’s Old Oak Common instead of Euston, and ending at Curzon Street, in Birmingham. After widespread pressure, this proposal was abandoned, and we have at least now got a high-speed line that will still run from central London beyond Birmingham to Handsacre, in Staffordshire, where it will connect to the existing West Coast Main Line.
Passengers from London to Scotland will therefore benefit from this investment, and high-speed or not, this still places the West Midlands at the heart of the UK’s rail spine.
This decision, which also protected significant numbers of job in the West Midlands, provides an example of respectful yet powerfully-argued lobbying proving to be successful, where robust, business-like discussions resulted in a revised direction. This gives me hope for the future of high speed rail to Manchester, if we can build a compelling case. I believe we can.
There was plenty of good transport news too for the West Midlands, which could be seen as concessions for the Prime Minister’s HS2 decision. I welcome the Government investment in the Midland Rail Hub, a £1.75billion project which will revolutionise travel across the East and West Midlands.
For years rail links with our Eastern neighbours have been appalling but, backed by Government funds, our Hub plan will address this quickly. This will mean more frequent services to the likes of Leicester and Nottingham, whilst also enabling a third cross-city line in Birmingham via Moor Street – a station that will finally be able to reach its vast potential.
It is also no secret that we have had significant challenges with transport funding in recent years, leading us to make difficult decisions when it comes to our public transport network. But again, the Government has put substantial cash on the table – £350million – to help us address this and protect services.
These commitments, along with what is expected to be another £1bn-plus for transport infrastructure here, are serious investments for our region. And they will compliment HS2’s arrival in the West Midlands, not be a replacement.
However, the Prime Minister also made one other crucial commitment: to hold the door open to proposals to improve links between Birmingham and Manchester. Again, this gives me hope that a high speed link can still happen.
It won’t be easy. It may mean going back to the drawing board. A private sector consortium, including the likes of Arup and Siemens, will re-examine the operating model, design specs, governance, financial models, and economic case for high-speed rail to Manchester.
I recognise that the Prime Minister has said emphatically that the Manchester leg of HS2 has been cancelled, but delusion or not I believe through this work a high-speed link between Birmingham and Manchester can be revived. And remember, there is time; HS2 was never meant to reach Manchester until 2041.
To make this ambition a reality, we need to take constructive steps that leave the way open for a revival: for example, by not rushing to sell land that has already been purchased for the Manchester phase.
But ultimately, this will be about having sensible, robust, and business-like conversations about how we can find a better way to achieve this project and show that, as a nation, we are capable of delivering forward-looking infrastructure. As a passionate believer in the high speed project, I am willing to take up the challenge of leading those discussions.
That is why the Euston decision was so important; it gives an opportunity for the private sector consortium which came forward to rethink HS2, to show just what may be possible; as Conservatives, we should relish working with business on Euston.
With the Prime Minister’s offer, and the backing of the business community, the work now begins to explore what may be possible between Birmingham and Manchester.