The closest calling point to Preston on the 225mph line is likely to be 35 miles away in Manchester, but a new report suggests its impact could still extend deep into the heart of Lancashire.
High speed trains will join the current West Coast Mainline south of Wigan and continue up to Scotland – passing through Preston as mainline services do today. And although the new fleet of carriages will be travelling at more sedate speeds by the time they arrive in the city, economic development experts predict they could still put a rocket beneath the local economy.
However, members of Lancashire’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have been told that Preston will need to reinvent itself as a destination for high-value jobs if it is to make the most of its potential as an HS2 “hub” connecting commuters to the wider network.
Members of the LEP’s transport committee, which commissioned the study, heard that 11,100 jobs could be created by 2050 – within a 1km radius of the station itself.
They were told the county should learn lessons from similar high speed schemes on the continent – not least by acknowledging what is currently lacking in the local area.
“The Europeans are really good at seeing an opportunity for rail investment and then actively planning for growth – they don’t just hope it’s going to happen,” said Graeme Collinge, director of the report’s authors, consultants Genecon.
“Preston has some challenges – there is a lot of peak-time congestion and not much in the way of top-class office space. There are some parts [which are better than others], but this is a good opportunity to…attract the top professions, which is what you would want to see in a modern city.
“And we’re all familiar with what the station environment is like – you walk into it and see it hasn’t had a lot of investment in quite a long time.
“So we have tried to lay out the opportunity which is there for Preston to go and grab.”
The committee heard that the potential to transform the city will only be realised if its railway station is similarly revamped.
Some of the work needed to accommodate HS2 services will be born out of necessity. The length of the high speed trains – which will split further north into separate services for Glasgow and Edinburgh – will mean some of the station’s platforms will have to be extended to stretch for 400 metres.
But the city will be short changed if longer platforms are the extent of the ambition for the project, according to a specialist transport adviser at Lancashire County Council.
“The government and Network Rail will do what they have to do to allow Preston station to receive HS2 trains – but it won’t necessarily do anything to change the station into a genuine, top-class interchange between HS2 services and [others],” Dave Colbert said.
“[But we] could unlock development and commercial land use opportunities if we establish a coherent strategy which could be a catalyst for doing even more than [modernising] the station,” he added.
Controversially, Graeme Collinge suggested that the biggest benefits for Preston could come if stations like Lancaster were removed from the West Coast Mainline and become stopping points for local services only – driving more passengers through Preston.
However, last month the transport secretary Chris Grayling said he “could not conceive” of a time when mainline services no longer called at the likes of Lancaster, Wigan and Oxenholme.
The Genecon report also predicts that £3.5bn of “gross value” could be added to the Preston city region economy over the next three decades if HS2-related growth is fully harnessed. An increase of £5.5bn is forecast for Lancashire as a whole.
The local democracy reporting service understands that the Preston-specific figures in the report are based on analysis of over 60 potential employment and housing developments currently laid out in the city’s local plan – and an assessment of whether they are more likely to come to fruition if HS2 happens. That forecast is then extrapolated up to 2050, based on a series of “scaled-up assumptions”.
Graham Cowley, chair the LEP’s Growth Deal Management Board, said local authorities need to align their visions for the future in order to make the most of any opportunities which an HS2 hub brings to the area.
“The planning process should define what elected members feel is the right shape of development [for] their patch,” he explained.
“The most important thing is that [such] decisions are made and are therefore an open door for the private sector to come in and invest on the back of [the station’s redevelopment].”
Committee members were told that the next stop for Lancashire’s leaders should be to start lobbying government for the level of investment which the station and surrounding area would require to make the most of HS2’s potential for Preston.
“We don’t know what the costs will be, but they will probably run into the hundreds of millions of pounds in terms of the work that needs to be done at Preston station,” Mr. Colinge said.
“So in terms of constructing a business case for such a large ask from government…any story you sell to them needs [to show the] level of potential benefit.”
Whatever the wider impact of any redevelopment, Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver said a facelift for the station was long overdue.
“I’ve just finished reading a book about the Lancaster canal and it has a photo of Preston station from 1863 – and it could have been taken last week,” he said.
‘NOBODY DENIES WE NEED BETTER OFFICE SPACE’
Previous forecasts for the number of jobs which could be created by HS2 have suggested that they could number 3,000 across the whole of Preston and South Ribble.
Deputy leader of Preston City Council, Peter Moss, says he has not seen the latest economic consultancy report predicting that nearly four times that number could come to Preston city centre alone and so cannot comment on it.
But he accepts the suggestion that the city needs to do more to attract office-based businesses.
“We have to modernise our office space to create more high quality options,” Cllr Moss said.
“We are looking at the potential investment opportunities which we have and nobody would deny that something needs to be done.
“In general, an HS2 hub is a fantastic opportunity for Preston and we are looking forward to the impact it will have on the station and surrounding area.”
‘END THE UNCERTAINTY OVER HS2’, BUSINESS LEADER DEMANDS
The next Prime Minister needs to remove the question marks which have been placed over HS2, according to the leader of a Lancashire business organisation.
Frank McKenna, chief executive of Downtown in Lancashire, has called on Conservative leadership hopefuls to state their commitment to the project.
“If I run a business which wants to invest somewhere, then I’ll look at the infrastructure plans in that area. And if I see politicians putting a question mark over them, then I get nervous,” Mr. Mckenna said.
Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid have publicly committed to the scheme, but Boris Johnson this week said he would order a review of the £56bn project – whose costs have spiralled since its inception.
However, the favourite to enter Number 10 next month says that he would have to “think very hard” before cancelling it completely – and indicated he could instead make construction of the northern sections a priority.
On that front, Frank McKenna would agree.
“The biggest issue with HS2 is not the cost, but the fact that it is starting in the South, when it should be starting in the North, “ he said.
Mr. McKenna said that he is “not surprised” by suggestions that HS2 could create over 11,000 jobs in Preston – and stressed that the project is crucial to the city’s future plans.
“I was a big critic when the Tithebarn [retail-led] development went down a decade ago. But the now city has a vision which is more realistic and deliverable.
“Yet Preston can make all the speculative development investment it likes, but that’s no good if you can’t get in and out of the place easily,” he warned.
A spokesperson for HS2 Limited, the government-funded body responsible for developing the high speed rail project, said:
“HS2 trains are coming to both Preston and Lancaster stations which will improve journey times, create jobs and drive economic growth.
“HS2, together with Northern Powerhouse Rail [improved West-East connectivity across the North], will enable faster, more frequent and more reliable services across the North, as well as taking freight off our roads. It will play a crucial role in rebalancing Britain’s economy.”
‘PRESTON WOULD BECOME COMMUTER BELT FOR THE CAPITAL’
The completed HS2 line would cut journey times between Preston and London from two hours eight minutes to one hour 17 minutes. Saving such a significant chunk of travel time is likely to transform how the city is seen by businesses looking for somewhere to locate, according to Lancashire County Council’s growth boss.
“That is the time it takes to get from Preston to Manchetser during the rush hour – and nobody would bat an eyelid if somebody living in Preston got a job in Manchester,” Stephen Young, the authority’s director of growth, environment and transport said.
“So although it sounds ridiculous, Preston could become commuter belt for the capital once HS2 is completed.
“It would be a real possibility for business which would like to have a base in London, but find the costs prohibitive,” he added.
Council leader Geoff Driver said that the benefits of Preston becoming a transport hub on the HS2 network were obvious – and need to be felt beyond the city.
“It’s crucial that we make the most of this significant opportunity to bring new jobs and economic growth to the county.
“We’ve already got great places to live and great places to do business. We’re home to world-class companies, especially in advanced manufacturing. Increased connectivity is a real positive for them to attract highly-skilled workers.
“HS2 will make it even easier for people from London and elsewhere, to come here to Lancashire.
“Although it could still be a few years away, we’ve already started to look at how we can put the county in the right position to benefit from HS2,” County Cllr Driver added.
‘DON’T FORGET ABOUT BLACKPOOL’
Plans to turn Preston station into a hub for the high speed rail network must also make it easier for passengers to connect to Blackpool, one of the resort’s councillors has said.
Fred Jackson, cabinet member for transport on Blackpool Council, described the current arrangements at Preston as “a nightmare”.
Cllr Jackson said any redesign should bear in mind Blackpool-bound travellers.
“It’s a nightmare for families to get from whatever platform they arrive on [in Preston] and across to the Blackpool platform,” Cllr Jackson said.
“That is especially true for families with young children.
“Although we can't prove it, I think we have lost a lot of trade because of the difficulties passengers have [in Preston]. I’m hoping this development will answer some of those questions so that [all of Lancashire] benefits.
“It will obviously benefit Preston most, but as the number one tourist destination in the country, Blackpool also wants to benefit,” he added.