Asda chief Andy Clarke rallies business leaders to HS2 cause

Business leaders in the north have been urged to rally behind the proposed high speed rail line as attempts to defeat it reach the Supreme Court.

As 10 local authorities challenge High Speed 2 on environmental grounds in a case due to start on Tuesday, one of the north’s most prominent businessmen has warned that money earmarked for the project would be swallowed up by London if it was not built.

Andy Clarke, chief executive of Asda, the UK’s second biggest supermarket by sales, and chairman of Leeds and Partners, the city’s inward investment agency, told its annual meeting that recent business criticism of the cost had imperilled the scheme.

“HS2 is great for the north and fabulous for Leeds,” he said. “We had better talk positively about it. If we do not, that [money] will be spent anyway and it won’t be in the north.”

He added: “No one talks about the cost of Crossrail in London,” warning that transport spending could be diverted to the capital, which already spends 13 times more than Yorkshire per head.

The Y shaped line to Leeds and Manchester via Birmingham has been attacked for rising costs, with the total estimate, including contingencies and rolling stock, rising to £50bn.

Separately, the new chairman-elect of HS2 told a committee of MPs on Monday that he had decided to take the job because he was becoming increasingly “concerned” that the project, which still boasts cross-party support, “was becoming a political football”.

Sir David Higgins, who is currently chief executive of Network Rail, said the project was urgently needed because the existing rail network is running out of capacity. He said proposals from the project’s opponents that extra capacity could be squeezed out of the existing infrastructure offered “small and incremental” increases, promising that HS2 would be “transformational”.

One government aide said that the high-profile criticism of HS2 over the summer was now galvanising a strong counter-response. “Perhaps the pro campaign needed a bit of a jolt . . . we have definitely seen a massive upturn in supportive activity since the midsummer.”

David Cameron, prime minister, visited Leeds last week and denied that other projects would be starved of funds because of HS2.

“I think people think that all the government’s money is going to go on HS2, and there’s going to be no money for anything else,” he said.

“If you look at the next Parliament, 2015 to 2020, the government are going to spend three times more on other transport infrastructure, road and rail, than on HS2.”

He cited electrification of the railway between Liverpool and York, extra platforms and connections at Manchester and the £254m Leeds trolleybus scheme.

He accused Labour of turning their backs on the north of England by warning there would be “no blank cheque” for HS2.

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, has previously said he would review its cost if Labour won the 2015 election.

The 10 councils taking legal action, which all lie on the London-Birmingham section of the route, believe the government is acting unlawfully by failing to take account of the “catastrophic” environmental impact of high speed rail.

“The government appears determined to push ahead with the project without considering if the objectives of the scheme could be achieved in a different way with less cost to the country and reduced impacts on local communities,” wrote Valerie Leach, of Camden Council, and Nick Rose, leader of Chiltern council, in a joint letter.

They complained of the “destruction of ancient woodland, habitat and ecological loss alongside loss of homes, businesses and communities”.

The government has said the issues should be decided in parliament, not the courts.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.