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The campaign that brought train-building back home
THE Government's decision to press ahead with the Intercity Express Programme (IEP) prompted jubilant scenes in the North-East last night. Joe Willis looks back at how the region united behind The Northern Echo's Back on Track campaign to deliver a £4.5bn economic boost.
THE opportunity for the North-East to once again be at the centre of the nation's train-building programme has been seized.
Business leaders, union chiefs and politicians have worked seamlessly with The Northern Echo to campaign for the region to be given the chance to assemble a new breed of high-speed trains fit for the 21st Century.
The decision to hand the contract to the Hitachi-led consortium Agility Trains will lead to 500 jobs being created at a new purpose-built factory at Newton Aycliffe, and the potential economic benefits of the project have led to the project being described as the "new Nissan".
Last night Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: "I recognise the huge head of steam that there has been behind The Northern Echo's campaign."
The potential significance of IEP, first discussed in 2005, was realised when it became clear that the region was in the running for the Hitachi assembly plant.
The possibility emerged in February 2009 when the then Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon announced that the Agility consortium was the Government's preferred bidder.
Agility had selected three potential sites for the plant - including Gateshead.
Behind-the-scenes negotiations continued for a further year, however when a further announcement was made it was not good news.
New Transport Secretary Lord Adonis blamed the credit crunch and lower-than-expected passenger numbers when he put IEP on ice in February last year.
Sir Andrew Foster was brought in to investigate other options. He would report back after the looming General Election.
The way forward appeared even less clear when the new coalition Government announced in July that no decision would be made until October at the earliest.
However, the importance to the region of IEP became even more apparent two days later when The Northern Echo revealed that a site at Newton Aycliffe had been identified as Hitachi's preferred location for the assembly plant.
Within days a campaign had been launched to galvanise the region's support behind Hitachi's bid.
The campaign, Back on Track, was spearheaded by Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, together with Durham County Council, the North East Chamber of Commerce, Northern TUC, Unite the union and The Northern Echo.
A petition was launched with the first signature coming from Labour leadership candidate and South Shields MP David Miliband.
North-East businesses were urged to pledge their backing and a Facebook site was set-up.
The campaign soon received cross-party support, with Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs and council leaders putting aside political differences to back the bid.
In August last year, Geoff Hunton, director of Merchant Place Developments, confirmed that 104-acre Amazon Park, in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, was Hitachi Rail Europe's preferred location for an assembly and manufacturing facility.
Later that month, campaigners were given hope when Mark Prisk, Minister of State for Business and Enterprise Government, acknowledged that a £7.5bn train-building project would deliver significant economic benefits to the region.
In September, a report produced by the County Durham Development Company revealed that every £1 of Government money invested in the project would be turned into £48 in the local economy.
On September 21, The Northern Echo produced the Back on Track supplement, which detailed the region's case for delivering the IEP contract.
Copies accompanied a delegation of business and union leaders who travelled from the region to meet with ministers in London.
The delegation was told that Hitachi had tabled a revised IEP bid.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the new proposal took account of the tough economic times.
As the comprehensive spending review loomed, the Back on Track petition containing 4,000 signatures was handed to Downing Street.
However, a week later the review came and went with train-building projects barely mentioned.
With no word from Chancellor George Osborne, it was left to Business Secretary Vince Cable to declare that the train project was still very much alive.
But a week after the spending review the campaign was rocked by news that rival bidder Express Rail Alliance would consider a legal challenge if Agility was awarded the contract after significantly altering its bid.
As October slipped into November, frustration among campaigners grew.
Conflicting stories leaked out of Parliament. Some said Agility had been successful, others that its rivals were still in the running.
During an official visit to the region the Transport Secretary was urged to make a decision in favour of the North-East.
However, a week later Mr Hammond announced a deal would not be announced for several months until officials had weighed up the different options.
The Northern Echo revealed on the same day that the alternative options being considered by the Government would not create any British jobs.
As 2010 slipped into 2011, the campaign to bring Hitachi to the North-East showed no signs of abating.
Japan's UK ambassador Shin Ebihara became the latest in a long line of people lobbying the Government over the deal.
Persistence appeared to have paid off at the beginning of February when it emerged that officials had drawn up plans to hand the IEP contract to Agility.
All it needed was the Transport Secretary's approval.
This was announced yesterday in a decision which delighted the region.
The campaign had been won. Now the hard work to turn the region back into a train-building powerhouse really starts.
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