The view from Steel City: Devolution has united Sheffield City Region but HS2 is a problem

Northern Powerhouse Rail is an ambition for half-hour journeys between the centres of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. HS2 could form the eastern leg of HS3 between Leeds and Sheffield '“ but only if the stations are in both city centres. If the Sheffield station is four miles away at Meadowhall, then what? The thorny issue of where to put the station has exposed deep divisions. South Yorkshire writer David Walsh reports.

Wednesday, 27th April 2016, 6:14 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th April 2016, 7:18 pm
A mock up picture of the HS2 station in Sheffield city centre by HLM Architects

It’s good to talk, but some subjects are just too tricky for business and public sector leaders in Sheffield City Region.

Specifically: where to put the HS2 station. The government’s choice is Meadowhall, four miles from the city centre. It is the straightest route, derided as being based on a ‘transport planner’s view of the world’.

The economic choice appears to be Sheffield city centre. HS2 Ltd’s own figures show it would create 6,500 more jobs and 1,000 more homes, while its advisers Genecon say it would pump an extra £5bn into the economy over 25 years.

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And it might cost no more to build, the geology at Meadowhall is hugely problematic – and as yet uncosted – with a three-mile fault along the route, followed by more than a mile riddled by old mineworkings.

Sheffield Chamber, Sheffield City Council and hundreds of public and private sector organisations, have been campaigning for a switch of site. The proposal also has support outside the region, with leaders in Leeds and Manchester preferring the idea of a fast train into Sheffield city centre and not to a hub four miles away.

But Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster councils, and many businesses in those boroughs, prefer Meadowhall, partly due to it being physically closer to them. Some also suspect that a long-standing animosity towards an overweening Sheffield is also playing a part.

So far, the Local Enterprise Partnership – the public-private business and regeneration body – has refused to publicly engage with the debate.

For years it has had one stock response to queries: it supports HS2 but ‘recognises the advantages’ of both sites. It also wants ‘maximum economic benefit’ for the city region and to have it ‘fully integrated’ with Northern Powerhouse rail, dubbed HS3.

The LEP has an ambition to create 70,000 private sector jobs in the next decade, so the city centre might seem the obvious choice. But it has refused to state a view, presumably in a bid to keep all members happy.

This has left many exasperated. Sheffield Chamber chief Richard Wright accused it of poor leadership and “lamely accepting whatever the government throws at them,” while Peter Richardson, chairman of the Local Enterprise Partnership for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire has urged Sheffield to “make your mind up” on HS2, warning that any delay “looks like you’re not interested”.

In a new tack, Mr Wright has drawn up five principles on which location should be decided and urged the LEP to get involved. They include maximising the economic impact, delivering and integrating with HS3, aligning with the region’s economic plan and ticket sales.

This method worked very well in Leeds where the Chamber led a successful campaign to move the proposed site 500m and integrate it with the existing station. But so far, nothing from Sheffield LEP.

To be scrupulously fair, it has been very focused on signing a second devolution deal with government, set to bring even more powers and £900m funding over 30 years.

But having done that, pressure to debate HS2 is now being brought to bear on new leader, Sir Nigel Knowles, co-chair of global law firm DLA Piper.

He must be wondering what he has stepped into – and whether it is worth staying quiet just to keep the family happy.