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Birmingham unites behind HS2 as high speed rail dissenters trounced in Parliament

Birmingham unites behind HS2 as high speed rail dissenters trounced in Parliament

🕔29.Apr 2014

Cross-party support for HS2 remains firm in Birmingham as politicians from all parties begin to realise that, despite the noisy protests, high speed rail really is coming down the track.

The city council cabinet has agreed to set up a £1 million development fund to help prepare growth strategies around the HS2 terminus station to be built at Curzon Street, Digbeth, and an interchange station at Birmingham Airport/NEC.

Labour cabinet members are fully behind HS2, as are senior Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors. If there are any doubters, they are maintaining a low profile at the moment.

The project is regarded as a once in a lifetime opportunity to deliver economic growth, inward investment and jobs for Birmingham city centre and at the UK Central zone encompassing land around Birmingham Airport, the NEC and the M42 corridor.

In fact, so important is HS2 to Birmingham, that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) is based chiefly on the number of jobs to be created off the back of high speed rail. If HS2 was to be derailed, there wouldn’t be a great deal left of the SEP.

One crucial element in keeping the high speed vision together has been the firming up of Labour Party support, a crucial factor since final approval for the £42 billion project will not be given until after the 2015 General Election.

Late last year Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls appeared to be lukewarm about HS2.

He told Chamberlain Files he would not “write a blank cheque” for the scheme and accused the Government of allowing costs to escalate. Mr Balls indicated that “as a northern MP” he favoured improving air links between the North and London rather than building a new railway.

His words were quickly repeated across other media and appeared to open up a rift between Mr Balls and party leader Ed Miliband, who has made clear his view that HS2 will help address the north-south divide and bring jobs to the Midlands and North.

Much work has taken place behind the scenes to convince Labour of the case for HS2, not solely in terms of the economic growth the railkway will bring but also as a device to free up capacity on the overcrowded West Coast Main Line.

Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore, a member of the HS2 Growth Panel, and Sir Richard Leese, the Labour leader of Manchester City Council, have been credited with helping to convince Mr Balls and the shadow cabinet to support high speed rail and it seems certain now that the project will go ahead should Labour win the next election.

Birmingham MPs, in a rare display of unity, have also been  actively lobbying shadow ministers and putting the case for HS2.

The latest attempt by protesters to halt HS2 failed when MPs overwhelmingly backed the scheme in a House of Commons vote. A proposal by ex-minister Cheryl Gillan for the plan to be halted was thrown out by 451 votes to 50.

A total of 35 Tories rebelled against the government, while  47 Tories missed the vote or abstained.

Mary Creagh, Shadow Transport Secretary, explained why Labour was now backing HS2.

“High Speed 2 will improve connections between the North and South and between northern cities. It can be a key element in Ed Miliband’s Agenda 2030 plan to create an economic recovery that reaches every part of our economy. Freeing up capacity on the congested West Coast Main Line will allow more frequent commuter and regional services and more rail freight.

“The project’s cost is significant, but the benefits will be great. Cost-benefit analysis says it will deliver £2.30 in benefit for every £1 spent.”

She added that HS2 followed “in Brunel’s great tradition” of railway building and we should learn from Victorian ambition for improving transport links.

There may still be battles to be won over likely attempts by the Treasury to trim the cost of HS2.

Lord Mike Whitby, former Tory leader of Birmingham City Council, said he believed a “London-centric” Government might make changes to HS2 plans, adding that “we must be vigilant especially where Birmingham’s two HS2 stations are concerned.”

He gave the example of the £500 million refurbishment of New Street Station, where building work is mid-way through completion and there are proposals to cut back on some parts of the scheme.

HS2 facts, according to the Department for Transport:

  • Phase One of HS2, running from Euston to Birmingham, will cost £21 million and deliver 40,000 jobs across the West Midlands.
  • Phase Two, taking the line northwards in a Y-shape to Manchester and Leeds, is also estimated to cost £21 billion and will deliver between 48,000 and 70,000 jobs in cities along the route.
  • The London to Birmingham line will be around 140 miles long.
  • The line from Birmingham to Manchester will be around 95 miles long.
  • The line from Birmingham to Leeds will be around 116 miles long.
  • The total network will be around 330 miles of track.
  • More than half the Phase One route will be in cuttings or tunnels.
  • Around 56.5 miles of Phase One will be partially or totally hidden in cutting to reduce visual effects and noise in neighbouring communities.

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