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HS2: new driver needed

HS2: new driver needed

🕔29.Aug 2019

Is the Oakervee Review “welcome”, “frustrating” or the end of the line for HS2, asks Kevin Johnson?

It was no surprise to see Andy Street prosecuting a positive take on the announcement towards the end of last week. He “peddles optimism” better than any other UK politician – except Boris Johnson, obviously (just ask Jeremy Hunt).

It’s clearly a positive that Mr Street is on the Review panel, but he sits alongside sceptics and – as the Terms of Reference make clear – no panel member will have a veto.

The possibility of Mayor Street seeing his party take the UK out of the European Union without a deal and call a halt to HS2 have certainly increased in the last week. If that were to become the backdrop to his re-election bid, even his capacity for loyalty would surely be stretched.

How long could Mr Street remain part of a governing party which stands four square opposite to fundamental elements of his platform? Maybe Ruth Davidson will offer him some advice.

Birmingham’s economic renaissance owes much to the prospect of HS2. Its removal would be cataclysmic. The effect of a Brexit No Deal (or “clean break” as Nigel Farage would have it) would have dire consequences for the region’s trade, most notably in the automotive and aerospace manufacturing sub-sectors.

To be fair to Mr Street, he has been warning of the risk to HS2 for some months. He has been asking business audiences to keep making the case, with a watchful eye on what Boris Johnson might do if installed in No 10.

Mr Johnson’s first regional visit as PM was to Birmingham. He told Birmingham Live that he would “hesitate for a long time” before scrapping the project.

The Oakervee Review, as made clear by its terms and the announcement from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, is about “whether and how to proceed” with HS2 (my emphasis).

The PR effort behind HS2 has been woeful from the start. It has never recovered from putting speed, rather than capacity, at the centre.

Recently, a few letters to The Times, cobbled together with the names of some council leaders and chamber bosses with a sprinkling of business CEOs, haven’t really cut it.

The message from Midlands Connect to the new PM was:

Dear Prime Minister, don’t forget the Midlands.

The piece, first published in Business Live, mentioned HS2 at the end of paragraph five.

Maria Machancoses, Midlands Connect director, concluded:

As of today, the Midlands will no longer be bound by ‘Middle Child Syndrome’, we will not rely on our good manners to foster good will (sic).

That told him.

Dipping into talk radio stations and observing social media since last week’s announcement, it is more obvious than ever that those promoting HS2 have failed in impressing the line is more significant than knocking ‘20 minutes off travel time between London and Birmingham’ (not to mention countering the hilarious ‘who wants to visit Birmingham anyway’ throwaway that comes as standard).

HS2 Ltd has been improving communication of the rationale and benefits, but the company’s own corporate failings have rendered significant reputational damage.

It has been left to others to make the case. This excellent Independent article by Jon Stone was widely shared when it was published. As he says, the Government and politicians more generally have failed to make the case.

Nobody who has had any contact with people involved in HS2 has believed the 2026 timetable or £56bn outturn budget for quite some time. This week’s revelations from the BBC simply served to bring that into the open.

Just why HS2 and the Department for Transport thought trying to keep a lid on budget overruns and timetable delays was a good idea is beyond me. Always better to control the story rather than defend it following a leak in the midst of a PM-ordered root and branch review.

Given the new PM’s love of ‘grand projets’ and championing of infrastructure, his scepticism about HS2 might seem surprising. But that’s politics for you – not least when you consider the line’s impact on Tory constituencies as it ploughs north from Euston, opposition from the mighty Brexit Party and a very effective campaign from Joe Rukin and his Stop HS2.

No Deal and No HS2 does not immediately appear an election winning platform (that’s before we get to youth unemployment, homelessness and the rest). Labour hopeful Liam Byrne is already beginning to make some of those points powerfully on social media with his ‘Street Watch’ campaign.

Lord Adonis, one of HS2’s original architects, managed to stop tweeting about Brexit for a few moments last week and wrote an article for Business Live. He said:

I am particularly surprised that Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, is a party to this Johnson exercise in political irresponsibility.

Street’s whole regeneration and growth strategy for the West Midlands disintegrates if HS2 is delayed and cut back, let alone cancelled.

Andrew Adonis is the star turn at Birmingham Post’s Business Awards next month. He’ll have plenty to talk about.

London’s dominance in attracting transport spending is well established (at the last count, the capital received three times as much transport investment per head than the West Midlands). One part of that story is the role played by its Mayors – notably Livingstone and Johnson – in attracting funding and then championing those projects.

Northern Powerhouse, too, has gained good exposure for its case, albeit with a range of voices from George Osborne to Henri Murrison and Sir Richard Leese to Andy Burnham.

Mr Street has certainly promoted HS2, but it is one of many issues he addresses. Just take a look at his Twitter feed this week. No mention of HS2 or Brexit.

Who is the face of HS2? Don’t know?

No, me neither. What other major project or campaign has no person who is identified with and champions it effectively?

Until recently, Chris Grayling was head and shoulders above anyone else for HS2…

Much like the Remain/Revoke/People’s Vote/No to No Deal camp, the pro HS2 lobby need to get their act together. At speed.

Who will lead the charge? HS2 Ltd? Midlands Connect? UK Central? Northern Powerhouse? Core Cities? Birmingham City Council? West Midlands Combined Authority? Andy Burnham? CBI? Chambers of Commerce? West Midlands Growth Company?

You see my point.

Given the threat to investment in the region which would be caused by axing or significantly diluting HS2, it’s surely a challenge that the Growth Company, under Neil Rami, should step up to and offer leadership and resource.

But at the top of that campaign should sit the West Midlands Mayor, of course supported by others including Cllr Ian Ward and Andy Burnham.

New voices need to be part of that campaign too. Business leaders who have invested in the region where HS2 was a determining factor need to be marshalled.

The task is not just to see HS2 through the review relatively unscathed, but to start a continuing and powerful campaign to achieve better understanding and support.

A few tweets, the occasional letter and the odd article do not a campaign make.

Well-honed messages need to be constantly communicated. Retuned. Re-enforced. Backed up with real engagement and openness.

Peaky Blinders, Commonwealth Games, Town Centres, skills programmes and the rest all deserve attention. But, Mr Street, lose HS2 (and see No Deal pass through) and they will pale into insignificance.

Time to take to the driver’s seat.

All of which makes the event being staged by Downtown in Business – Birmingham next Wednesday, featuring Henri Murrison who leads the Northern Powerhouse Partnership with yours truly in the chair, even more important and timely.

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