The new HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail minister, Andrew Stephenson, has outlined his determination to bring change to how the project is delivered, and says HS2 needs to regain the public’s trust.
Speaking at a conference in Manchester, and describing HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail as the biggest and most important rail projects for the north of England since the Victorian era, Stephenson said: “This is an historic challenge, but it is also an unprecedented opportunity. To reverse decades of underinvestment in our northern railways and to fire up the northern economy, just as the original railways did. And to create the capacity and the connections that I believe will redefine rail travel for northern passengers.”
Setting the regional context, Stephenson continued: “You’ll have heard a lot of discussion since the general election about “levelling up” and rebalancing our country. But that doesn’t happen in the abstract. It happens in cities, in towns and in villages across the country. And it happens by creating the conditions firms need to grow in each and every one of those places.
“My job is to create those conditions for communities here in the north of England,” he said. “When transport provision is unreliable or overcrowded, it acts like a drag on business and enterprise. Yet when we provide our towns and cities with ample, reliable transport, we can turn them into fertile magnets for growth and investment.”
Describing both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse rail as “crucial to our future prosperity,” Stephenson said: “To really address overcrowding on the network, and provide the connections required to stimulate renewal across the north, we need to build new capacity - new rail links north to south, and east to west.
“That’s why we’re going ahead with both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. These are not either/or projects, they are both crucial to our future prosperity.
“HS2 is not simply a project that the north and Midlands benefit from, it is a project for these regions. Transforming journeys, liberating new capacity on the existing railway, connecting communities, and unleashing their potential.”
The minister also had a clear message for critics who claim that HS2 will only benefit London and the south-east.
“The critics who say that HS2 will only benefit London are simply wrong,” he said. “They ignore the voices in towns and cities across the north. They ignore the businesses and passengers who are crying out for investment and change. I am proud to be a northern MP, tasked with ensuring these historic projects are delivered and run for the benefit of the people here.”
But the minister also set out his determination to bring change to how HS2 is delivered.
“I’ve been a long-term supporter of HS2,” he said. “But I’ve equally watched with deep concern as costs have risen and deadlines have been put back. Very simply, that can’t continue.
“We need to have a much better, improved approach from HS2 Ltd this time. The company has a new budget for Phase 1, and now must deliver it. No ifs, no buts.
“Community engagement must improve too. Too many times I’ve heard stories of unacceptable treatment of those impacted by this line. There will be disruption, we can’t avoid that. But we must manage this work professionally and efficiently, while always being sympathetic to those affected.
“And finally, we need tangible, stringent measures to ensure accountability so everyone knows their responsibilities.”
“Now I know that HS2 is up to this challenge. It has some fine minds and excellent people working on the project, but it needs to regain the public’s trust.”
Examining how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail can best work together, Stephenson said: “In terms of next steps, we will be bringing forward legislation for the high-speed line into Manchester as soon as practical. But before those designs are finalised, we’re going to be presenting one Integrated Rail Plan for the north and midlands.
“The plan will examine how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail can best work together, alongside wider investment in transport for the north and the midlands.
“I am personally committed to ensuring the north and midlands are fully engaged and consulted throughout the Integrated Rail Plan process. I will lead this programme, and will engage formally with leaders, TfN and Midlands Connect boards through a series of roundtables and visits as I travel across the north and midlands, and really get to grips with the priorities for these regions.
“But let me be clear. By keeping a firm grip on the cost, by ensuring communities are treated with care and respect, and by making sure the voices of local people are taken into account throughout, we will succeed in doing something no government has done for well over a century.
“By building a modern railway network for the north and midlands that will finally level up our country. Something that will shape the growth of the north, not just for decades, but for generations to come.”