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Neil Stephenson: If the Conservative Party is serious about northern England it will build High Speed Rail

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Neil Stephenson is CEO of Onyx Group, a Newcastle-based IT firm.

Neil-stephenson I wonder if Conservative strategists realise the damage that the Buckinghamshire rebellion against high-speed rail could do to the Conservative cause in the Midlands, the North and Scotland?

I wonder if they realise how businesspeople like me feel when we read about the chairmen of wealthy Home Counties Associations blackmailing the party with threatened funding-strikes and carpeting the Tory Chairman in closed-door meetings? Or news that a group of the best-connected Conservative donors are using their influence on the Conservative party to kill off a once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure project of national economic significance, partly because they have properties nearby the proposed railway line? Or that Conservative donors are drawing up plans to use their considerable wealth to thwart the will of Parliament by employing expensive QCs to sabotage through judicial review an election commitment by all three major parties?

To those of us trying to create jobs in difficult circumstances in the North of England, it seems tasteless in the extreme and reinforces many negative stereotypes about the Conservative Party. It serves to reinforce the impression that the Conservative Party has no time for anything outside of the stockbroker and banking fraternity around the Home Counties. That it has given up any hope of rebuilding its support outside the Blue-and-Yellow heartlands – an impression reinforced during recent by-elections – and only has time for schemes like Crossrail and the Olympics that help marginal seats in the South. That there is no appreciation for how tough life is for those living outside the gilded world of the Midsomers villages, City money and K&C. And certainly no inclination to share the wealth.

For a businessman like me, a national high-speed rail link that eventually runs the length of the country is an iconic investment in the future of the North that provides tangible opportunities for our business. Opponents parody the train's purpose as simply "knocking off twenty minutes off the journey to Birmingham". But it means a lot more to employers like me. Once complete, the train will give our Newcastle-based IT firm a chance to reach the heart of the British economy, cheaply, quickly and, unlike today’s train travel, with a guaranteed seat. That's simply not possible at the moment with the existing train system which is filled to capacity and constantly struggling to juggle freight, commuters and intercity traffic on a cramped, winding network of crumbling Victorian train lines. For me the failure of Britain's transport system translates into missed meetings, unexpected overnight stays, disappointed customers and frazzled staff. A quick, cheap, reliable train service means I can build a customer base in places our employees couldn’t previously service without expensive hotel bills and missed night-time stories for their kids. And it means I can recruit from the high-end IT talent pools of London. These are tangible benefits that will help me build my business.

Screen shot 2011-03-28 at 07.37.52 An investment in a high-speed rail-link also gives a sense of hope during a time of severe public service cuts (that hurt our communities particularly harshly) that somehow the prosperity of Britain can somehow be spread more evenly. Of course, decisions about high-speed rail investment must be determined by the economic case - as a businessman I understand that. And I believe the business case is strong, with tens of billions of pounds of upside, for both the North and the South. But there is, like with many major infrastructure investments, a strategic case with benefits that are not easily captured in the accountant's spread-sheet. A high-speed rail-link shows everyone that the whole country is open for business and that you do not need to move to London to succeed. These are important points worth fighting for. Which is why I have joined the Campaign for High Speed Rail which launched this weekend.

Because if this project is somehow cancelled I fear that the consequences are dire. For the economy, the two halves of Britain will continue to grow further apart with unthinkable social consequences. Countries like France, Spain and China have seen the dangers of this and are investing in ambitious high-speed rail projects. Britain should do the same.

And if we fail, the consequences for the Conservative Party are also stark. The campaign against HS2 will have shown that the influence of the Tory squirearchy, the hedge-fund farmers and the small-state ideologues still hold the reins of power in the Conservative Party. And it will prove that there's no one in the Conservative Party who can effectively fight the corner for those of us trying to build jobs outside the South.


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