The HS2 rail link will be “even more imperative” after Brexit, the scheme’s new chairman has said.
Allan Cook, who recently took the job of overseeing the multi-billion pound transport project, argued that it had a key role to play in balancing the national economy.
With both the scheme itself and the country as a whole at a critical point, Mr Cook this week spoke to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) about his hopes for the development and some of the key challenges.
“When the UK decides to come out of the European Union , then the importance of infrastructure, connectivity and improving the way that people move within the UK is going to be absolutely [essential],” he said.
Mr Cook, a chartered engineer, was appointed in December and said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of “an iconic regeneration programme.”
His predecessor, Sir Terry Morgan, had resigned after four months in charge of HS2 and the scheme attracts a lot of scrutiny – with passionate views among both supporters and opponents. Did he have any doubts about taking on the job?
“Absolutely none at all,” he said. “I regard it as a privilege.
“I’m an engineer, I’m a businessman, I have been for 50 years, [there was an] opportunity to work with skilled people of all sort of disciplines.”
He has been keen to emphasise the wider benefits of the rail link and the opportunities to encourage investment.
“What we are going to see is the creation of businesses, we are already seeing that now,” he said.
“We are seeing the creation of careers, we are seeing the creation of better connectivity across the region.
“Birmingham is the hub. Birmingham is actually going to be the real catalyst for growth into the Midlands, West and the East and into the North.”
He has also stressed the importance of continuing the project north from the Midlands.
While there has been some speculation that Phase 2 of the link – which will eventually take the line up to the likes of Manchester and Crewe – might be under threat, Mr Cook said this was a critical part of the plans.
“I see it as my responsibility to make absolutely certain that HS2 doesn’t only come to Birmingham.
“We’ve had it from the Secretary of State [Chris Grayling], who said in January that if we only took it as far as Birmingham and didn’t take it all the way … it would be a betrayal of what HS2 is all about.
“And that’s exactly how we see it and that’s exactly how I see it personally.”
Mr Cook said the project had been “a long time in gestation”, but enabling works were now underway and construction was due to begin in earnest this year.
“If you look at the skyline in Birmingham, what you see is, basically, HS2 is happening,” he said.
“If you look at the work that’s going on in Curzon Street [site of a new station], the plans that we have in place for the Interchange and the plans that we are involved in in developing not only in the links from Birmingham to London, but actually further north.
“We’ve already got close on … 7,000 people working on the programme.
“People are already starting to see major things happening.”
While much has been made of the investment the project could bring to the regions, some have questioned whether it will be successful in rebalancing the economy away from the capital.
Mr Cook, who describes himself as “a northern guy, born and bred in the North East”, insisted that the scheme would offer the chance to draw on skills across a wider area of the UK.
“I would liken London to an electro-magnet … because of Parliament, because of the financial institutions within London.
“However what HS2 is going to deliver within Birmingham and the Midlands and North is actually a better opportunity for people outside of the Home Counties.
“The UK is a relatively small island, but we are renowned for our innovation, we are renowned for the fact that we get the best out of what we have available. And that’s what HS2, I think, is all about.”
Mr Cook was in fact speaking from his office at Snow Hill – home of the organisation’s official headquarters.
“Nearly sixty five per cent of the HS2 staff are based in Birmingham now and it probably will grow to about 70 per cent,” he added.
One of the biggest concerns about the scheme ever since its inception has been the cost, and this was among the issues raised when the chairman appeared before MPs on the Transport Select Committee earlier this month.
“Obviously it’s a very expensive programme,” he said this week, but insisted the finances were being closely monitored.
“When I was appointed, the Secretary of State and the department made it very clear that we have a budget, which was set in the 2015 spending review, of £55.7 billion…
“That’s the challenge that HS2 has. The challenge is to make sure that we are working with the supply chain and with everybody involved, the stakeholders, to deliver on that commitment.”
While HS2 has many cheerleaders in the region’s business community, a significant number of residents – particularly near to the route – are worried.
In areas like Solihull, many communities fret about the loss of green belt and the disruption during the construction period.
There is also a wider battle to improve public opinion of the scheme, with one survey by national polling company ComRes suggesting just seven per cent of people believed HS2 would directly benefit them.
Addressing the challenge, Mr Cook said: “We have a responsibility, as HS2, to be absolutely clear and communicate as effectively as we possibly can in terms of the scope and the benefits that HS2 is going to bring to the communities along the route.
“We have got to keep on telling that story.
“We have got a team of over 100 people … to explain what the benefits are, but also what the challenges are.
“There will be disruption, I don’t think there’s obviously any doubt about that.
“But this is going to be a programme that is invested in over three decades … We are going to see benefits associated with HS2 for generations to come.”