Environmental Law Foundation event about HS2

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Explaining how a high speed rail network London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds will transform Britain's competitiveness.

On the 23rd June 2011, Norman Baker MP, Minister for Local and Regional Transport, gave a video address to an event held by the Environmental Law Foundation on the government’s consultation for High Speed 2. He explained that government believes a high speed rail network from London to Birmingham, with onward legs to Manchester and Leeds, will transform Britain’s competitiveness.

Environmental Law Foundation HS2 video speech


Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak today. Unfortunately, due to the constraints of Parliamentary business, I cannot be with you in person. Nevertheless, with a little over four weeks to go before the government’s consultation on a strategy for high speed rail draws to a close, I was anxious to contribute to the debate.

The government believes that a national high speed rail network from London to Birmingham, with onward legs to Leeds and Manchester, will transform Britain’s competitiveness. With massively improved journey times giving better connections between key cities, it could reshape Britain’s economic geography.

Indeed, the economic benefits are many. For example, a London to West Midlands line would help create around 40,000 jobs near four stations. That includes thousands of jobs from the regeneration of Birmingham’s Eastside area. But this isn’t the only way business could benefit.

Research commissioned by Northern Way suggests that a lack of connectivity between major northern and Midlands conurbations has left them as isolated islands instead of single functional economic areas. Improved connections could help those cities work more effectively as a coherent whole. More jobs could result from the increased productivity that comes from merging labour markets and customer bases.

There are also distinct advantages in connecting the Midlands and the North with Heathrow. Improved access to international markets would almost certainly enhance their attractiveness to international investors.

So better connections, new jobs and regeneration, but high speed rail is also vital for another reason. Britain’s Victorian railway system, once the envy of the world, is becoming overstretched.

Long distance journeys have risen by 5% year-on-year for well over a decade. By 2043 we estimate the total number of long distance rail trips to almost double. Today people find it difficult to get seat at peak times. Tomorrow, it will become more and more difficult to just get on a train, let alone have a seat.

The West Coast Mainline - the UK’s busiest long distance rail route - is under particular strain even after the recent upgrade, which cost almost £9 billion, Network Rail says the southern end of the line will be effectively full by 2024 and it isn’t just passenger trains occupying the track. Significantly, around half of all UK rail freight uses this line at some stage in its journey. This is an important consideration given the freight market is forecast to grow by up to 11% per year between now and 2030 and the need to secure modal shift of freight from road to rail for carbon reasons.

So transferring long distance journeys to high speed rail would free up existing lines to run more commuter, regional and freight services. Places like Coventry could even end up with more local rail services while freight could benefit from a 50% increase in capacity.

There are also potential environmental benefits to high speed. In the London to West Midlands phase, our proposals are broadly carbon neutral. However, the rewards really come in stage two, when the network extends from London to Leeds and Manchester.

Reducing journey times between those cities by up to an hour would enable rail to compete even more strongly with air and road. As many as 6 million air trips and 9 million road trips a year could shift onto rail with the Y network. And the overall carbon benefits from high speed are set to grow as we continue to make progress on decarbonising our electricity supply.

Having spoken about the positive benefits of high speed there are of course, impacts too. The government is fully aware of the fears people have about the impact high speed rail could have on their homes and communities. That is why mitigation is a key element within our plans.

The importance of fully balancing the wider benefits of high speed rail with the impacts on local landscapes and communities is paramount. Last year the Secretary of State for Transport walked part of the line of route and, as a result, over half of it has now been refined. We’ve also been listening to the views of the communities that believe they might be affected and will reduce the local impact of high speed rail wherever possible.

To that end, more than a mile and a half of ‘green tunnels’ have been added to maintain local access as well as minimise noise and visual impact. Large sections of the route have been lowered into deeper cuttings or tunnels. Consequently, the number of properties where high noise levels would be expected, has fallen from 350 to around 10.

Importantly, if our proposals go ahead there will be more opportunities to influence the final design at the environmental impact assessment or hybrid bill stages. That thought brings me to the final part of my message today. Like you the government believes it is important to listen to local people.

Before the consultation, HS2 Ltd spoke to 12 separate local authorities to understand the best way of engaging local people and we’re now in the midst of one of the biggest consultations ever undertaken. We’ve written to the occupiers of 172,000 properties, held 41 days of roadshows and heard what almost 30,000 people have had to say.

We’ve listened and we’ve learned. Should we decide to go ahead, we’ll keep on listening. We would run further roadshows on the Leeds and Manchester legs of the route, and also look to learn from our experiences this time round.

As I said earlier, the government believes high speed could have transformational effect on communities across country. It would boost capacity on our networks, promote business, boost employment and has the potential to benefit the environment as well. In total, it would bring around £44 billion of economic benefits.

Yet we won’t do anything until we’ve heard all of your views and if you haven’t already done so, I would urge you to take part in the consultation. It runs until the end of July and getting involved couldn’t be easier, simply log on to our high speed rail website for more details.

Once again, my apologies for not being with you in person, but Jonathan Mitchell from our high speed rail team at the department is with you today and he will be participating in the question and answer session at the end of this morning’s session.

In the meantime, thank you for watching.