Chancellor George Osborne has called for a dialogue on boosting the UK’s regional economy, by constructing Britain’s third high-speed rail line between Manchester and Leeds, drawing mixed reactions from the technology community.
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The chancellor’s speech comes as the government attempts to address concerns that the economic recovery is failing to spread beyond Greater London.
A third high speed rail link (HS3) connecting major northern cities would serve as a counterpart to the much-criticised HS2 project – which will eventually split north of Birmingham to serve Leeds and Manchester respectively.
According to the BBC, a direct train from Manchester to Leeds currently takes around 49 minutes, but an upgrade to existing rail infrastructure across the Pennines could cut this. The line could eventually be extended to Liverpool and Sheffield.
“The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country,” said Osborne in his speech.
“We need an ambitious plan to make the cities and towns here in this northern belt radically more connected from east to west - to create the equivalent of travelling around a single global city.”
Manchester-based Doug Ward, co-founder of TechBritain, said such projects threw a much-needed spotlight on opportunities to do business outside of London, which tended to drown out other cities in the UK.
However, he said, government funds would be better directed through a shorter-term strategy to address IT skills – particularly software coding.
“I think we should invest in up-skilling and education. We are weak at software and our wider business community doesn’t understand its importance,” he said. “We need to encourage software engineers from around the world to come to the UK.”
Jon Moss, co-founder of Hull-based startup incubator C4DI, which is in regular contact with similar projects across the north of England, said: “We see the value of working together, and fast rail along the M62 corridor would help with that.”
Moss questioned the value of HS2 in helping young, northern technology businesses grow, saying he could already get to London from Hull in two and a half hours without going through Leeds.
Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, said: “Tech businesses need infrastructure. Obviously broadband infrastructure is critical but transport is also critical.”
Shaw welcomed Osborne’s remarks, saying that if a project was to go ahead it would benefit technology clusters all over the country, including those based in London, in terms of resource and talent sharing, and other forms of collaboration.
“This is not a zero-sum game. If Manchester’s tech cluster does well, it benefits all of us,” he said.