Paul Howell is the MP for Sedgefield and Heather Wheeler is the MP for South Derbyshire.
After our landslide election victory last year, the Prime Minister made a promise to unite the country and level-up our nations and regions. The jobs-first approach and once in a generation levels of public investment in infrastructure announced by the Chancellor in his spending review set our party on course to deliver on these promises, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.
The Chancellor has invested in supporting businesses and individuals throughout the pandemic – at massive cost to the Exchequer. But now that the vaccine is being rapidly rolled out across the country, we need to start thinking seriously about the economic recovery. We feel strongly that we need to invest in infrastructure and that in particular, investing in new rail lines, upgrades and new train fleets is one of the best ways to do so.
As Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the Midlands and the North East, we are pleased to see reform of the Treasury’s Green Book rules to unlock future public investment for our regions. Too often in the past, a rigid interpretation of the rules has led to spending in London and the South East, with areas such as ours being overlooked. The reforms under consideration have the potential to turn the situation on its head – essential if we are going to achieve our goals of levelling up.
The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy is also welcome, as is the unequivocal support it provides for High Speed 2 – our flagship national transport project.
When the Government gave HS2 the go-ahead it recognised that it will deliver vital connectivity, cut journey times and boost capacity. We are aware of the current calls to cancel the project outright given the impact of Coronavirus. However, as Andrew Stephenson recently said, to do so would “send a terrible signal out globally about the UK intending to build back better from Covid-19.”
With over half of the Phase 1 budget for the line from London to Birmingham already spent or contracted to, such calls are frankly nonsensical, and would lead to the loss of 13,000 jobs directly employed by HS2 and tens of thousands more in the supply chain.
Construction is well underway across the route, and British businesses are benefiting, such as County Durham based Cleveland Bridge, a world-leading steel engineering company. It produced twenty-four massive steel girders that form part of the first of HS2’s new modular bridges, recently installed over the A446 in Solihull in just 45 minutes.
Instead, we must continue with this once in a generation investment into UK plc. HS2 will serve as a much-needed catalyst for economic change across many of the cities and towns that are now Conservative constituencies. Many of these areas have seen positive change over recent years but such is the scale of the economic challenge that our levelling-up agenda must double down on investments such as these to drive economic growth and opportunity. This is made all the more important in light of the ongoing battle to contain Covid-19 across the UK, but particularly in our Blue Wall areas.
And to counter those who say the impact of home working and changes to commuting, or the future widespread introduction of autonomous vehicles means that we should no longer invest in rail, we say that is wrong. Demand for rail travel rose year on year since privatisation in 1995 – and pre-pandemic was predicted to go on rising – and we see no reason for this to change in the longer term. HS2 is intended to have an operating life of 120 years; it is right that we are thinking long term and investing in high-speed rail, just as virtually every advanced economy in the world is doing.
Try telling people in Japan, Germany, South Korea, China, Turkey and elsewhere that such investment is a waste of money and you will get an incredulous response. With many more countries now developing national and international high-speed rail networks, we have the opportunity in the UK to establish a world leading capability and export new trains, equipment and expertise to the likes of India, Australia, Scandinavia and many more. This opportunity is too often overlooked, but it has huge potential.
Making sure the British public gets the best bang for their buck from our flagship national transport project and that it truly delivers for the whole country will be vital. Anything less would be a missed opportunity. That is why HS2’s Phase 2b, Midlands Engine Rail, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and our plans to reverse Beeching’s cuts must also get the green light from the Integrated Rail Plan, which we are eagerly awaiting. Furthermore, investing in rail, and shifting people away from car and domestic air travel, is critical to achieving the Government’s net zero targets.
The opportunity from this unprecedented public investment is not just about new tracks, wires, bridges and tunnels – important though they are. We represent areas with rich and unrivalled heritage of train building, with two major rolling stock factories (Bombardier Transportation in Derby and Hitachi Rail in Newton Aycliffe) directly employing thousands of our constituents and supporting many thousands more jobs in their British supply chains.
After too many years of decline, when we saw British train building virtually extinguished, train building is back.
We now have two established UK factories employing highly skilled workers who are producing new trains that improve the journeys of British passengers. Were they to secure the order for the new fleet of very high-speed trains it would secure jobs and investment in regions outside HS2’s Phase 1 route, thereby spreading the programme’s benefits more evenly across the country to regions like the East Midlands and the North East. More broadly, it would enhance and protect vital existing investment in rail manufacturing at a time when the pandemic has created uncertainty across the rail sector.
We cannot waste the opportunity that our Government’s high-speed rail investment plans presents. Using it to level-up the economic fortunes of the areas we represent will make good on the Prime Minister’s promise to first time Tory voters at the last election – to unite our country and re-balance our economy. It is time to build back better.