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March 30, 2011 10:36 pm
The battle for the planned £32bn high-speed rail link from London has intensified as business leaders, MPs and council chiefs in Yorkshire began a lobbying campaign amid fears it could be scuppered by the residents of villages along its proposed route through Buckinghamshire.
Some 90 leading figures have signed an open letter calling for the “vital” project to go ahead. They represent businesses such as Yorkshire Bank, O2 and Eversheds, the law firm, as well as regional representatives of the Institute of Directors, CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses, and chambers of commerce.
Some 14 council leaders and 21 MPs also added their names, citing the £44bn in benefits the line would bring, according to government figures.
“High-speed rail will help economies outside the south-east and play an important part in trying to rebalance the economy,” the letter says.
“The government must not be blown off course by vocal protest from those along the route of the first phase of the network – the potential benefits of the network to the north and the country as a whole are too great to be ignored.”
Philip Hammond, transport secretary, has warned northern businesses they need to make their voices heard to prevent influential voters in the Chiltern hills halting the plans by putting pressure on Conservative MPs and the media. Several London-based business figures, including Lord Wolfson of Next, have opposed the plan as a “white elephant”.
Midlands businesses have been lobbying for months but because the route is uncertain after the initial line to Birmingham has been built there has been little activity by those farther north.
Also, train times to Manchester and Liverpool have fallen to just over two hours with extra capacity after the west coast mainline upgrade.
However, Richard Critchley, transport adviser at the Greater Manchester chamber of commerce, said the west coast line would be full within a decade. Commuter services had already been reduced to provide more trains to London. “We have to build a new line at some point. It should be a high-speed line,” he said.
In February, 69 business leaders, including Philip Green, CEO of United Utilities, the FTSE 100 utility, and Charlie Cornish, the chief executive of Manchester Airports Group, signed a letter of support for High Speed Two.
The first phase to Birmingham could start in 2015, with a Y-shaped extension to Manchester and Leeds via Sheffield to follow. Journeys between London and Manchester or Leeds would be cut from two hours to 70 minutes.
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