A £50bn high speed rail plan to reduce Newcastle to London journeys by 15 minutes is “bonkers on the biggest scale possible,” a former senior Treasury official has said.
Ed Twiddy, chief executive of the North East local enterprise partnership responsible for creating thousands of jobs, said it was incredible that the Government was spending money on a project which brought such little gain to the regions.
He was speaking as the partnership set out how it has spent millions of pounds on key employment sites across the region.
Business leaders had gathered in Durham to hear the partnership go over some of the issues still facing the region, including:
- A delay in bringing in offshore jobs to Tyneside blamed on Government energy policy,
- A warning that UKTI was failing the region,
- And a call for unity in fighting for the region’s needs.
Mr Twiddy, who was deputy director of local government in the Treasury, said the 15 minutes improvement to journey times as a result of a new high speed rail network would be “taken back from you” by an expected increase in freight rail use as a result of the Port of Tyne successfully growing its business.
The chief executive said the region was right to put the £200m reopening of the Leamside line on its list of must-win priorities, saying that “if we get that we will have a line for freight running parallel to the East Coast Main Line, meaning the ECML can be left to do what it was intended to do.”
Adding extra caution on the high speed rail finances, he said: “It’s not even a very innovative piece of infrastructure. It is the sort of thing that has been going on in Japan for 30 years, so we are spending all this money for no innovation. We are spending money on something the rest of the world already has, we can’t export that skill.”
Mr Twiddy was speaking before business leaders gather to see what the partnership has achieved. Set up by the coalition Government, it is increasingly tasked with leading on major infrastructure and job creation spending.
He was asked to explain why some Enterprise Zones sites had yet to bring in big name businesses despite generous tax allowances, suggesting wasted opportunities to reduce the region’s unemployment.
The chief executive said there had been no shortage of inquiries, but had yet to be enough people finish the deal. He pointed to government offshore wind energy policy as creating some uncertainties for firms looking to build huge turbines many miles out to sea. And he added: “Obviously energy firms looking to take long term decisions will also be aware of the potential freeze in energy prices. While that is going on it is inevitable that some firms will think they don’t have the clarity they need for decision that needs 25 years or more to see a return.”
Many of the firms attending the Durham County Cricket Club event welcomed criticisms of UKTI, the national quango tasked with bringing in foreign investment. A group representing the chemical industry said the two enquiries a month they used to receive when the region had its own development agency had “reduced to zero.”
This, Mr Twiddy said, was because UKTI had no geographical targets, adding that “there is a national target and they can meet that without even leaving the M25.”
His comments echo those of new Newcastle Gateshead Initiative chairman Paul Callaghan, who last month told The Journal he was concerned UKTI was not doing enough for North East job creation.