Full steam ahead for young CEO
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For most 15-year-olds the very idea of becoming a CEO is foreign, if not foreign then most certainly an aspirational one that might, possibly, become reality in the years ahead. But for Harry Burr there was no time to wait: things needed doing and he was the one to do them. Burr, the chief executive of Sustainable Transport Midlands, talks to Andy Tunnicliffe.
stablished in September 2020, Sustainable Transport Midlands (STM) has a mission to make transport environmentally and economically sustainable in the Midlands, and ensure that it's accessible for everyone. It wants to deliver a combined, integrated transport network for the whole region, connecting “every major settlement to a reliable transport mode”.
“I started the charity as I saw a gap in West Northamptonshire, especially in terms of transport, and rail in particular, compared with where I previously lived in Canterbury,” says 15-year-old Harry Burr, CEO of STM. “With two stations and even more surrounding it in greater Kent, it’s a really solid network compared with West Northamptonshire’s three stations, which in truth is hardly a network.”
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A voice for change
Since taking up the fight, Burr has been a voice for change in regional railways, one that has been heard by politicians at both a local and a national level. The region’s member of Parliament, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, who has already met with Burr, says that he believed the points raised by Burr are “spot on”. The youngster has been pressing for action to reconnect Daventry to the mainline as part of a sustained campaign and shared his thoughts with the MP.
The £20m Daventry Parkway Project proposal is, Burr says, “the most successful and longest-running campaign” of the charity’s short history. It will introduce a new Parkway station in Weedon Bec, serving the town of Daventry, one of the largest in the country without a railway station.
According to Heaton-Harris MP: “Harry took me through what he had done so far on his idea for a Daventry Parkway Station and we discussed the various stages every project needs to get past for it to secure funding and be delivered.”
The stations at Daventry and Weedon Bec closed more than 60 years ago, both having served for decades. Aside from the historical context, the practical loss of both was significant for the region and is still felt deeply today. “There are so many problems with the Midlands’ transport network,” Burr muses. In particular, he says, is the lack of connectivity.
“Let’s take West Northamptonshire, for example. The council area has no direct link to the rest of the East Midlands via rail, normally needing a change at Coventry or Birmingham New Street. This isn’t good enough. West Northamptonshire hasn’t even got a rail connection to North Northamptonshire, which is a council area in the same county.”
There are so many problems with the Midlands’ transport network.
Burr argues that those gaps need filling, turning a light on the likes of the Northampton to Wellingborough line, allowing a Corby to Northampton service to run; or a Rugby to Leicester line that would facilitate services from Lincoln to Leicester to be extended to Northampton.
“I’d like to see one connected network for the Midlands region. New lines and stations to fill connectivity gaps and rail ‘deserts’, and one simple payment system just like Oyster, to tap into a station and tap out when you’re finished,” he says. “It would make public transport so much more appealing in a region that has limited rail, especially now.”
Writing on the charity’s website, Burr says Daventry and the wider Northampton area have been “neglected” by rail for years, despite a recognition among politicians that investment is needed. He argues now is time for that investment to be forthcoming, given projects like High Speed 2 and rail expenditure in the South East being at an “all-time high”.
“It is time to give something back to a large and fast-growing town here in the South East Midlands.”
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Currently, STM has four ongoing campaigns, including Daventry Parkway. They include the Abingdon Parkway Programme, a project to redevelop Radley railway station in Oxfordshire into an attractive rail gateway for Abingdon; MK:Tram, a proposal for a new tram network in central Milton Keynes, stretching into the constituent towns; and Kingsbury Station Project – STM’s newest campaign – which is a project to introduce a new station in the Warwickshire village of Kingsbury, one of the largest places in the county without a rail link, according to Burr.
Between them, the three rail campaigns would service more than 70,000 locals should they be successful, while the MK:Tram project would help locals across Milton Keynes commute, shop and socialise. The town is the largest in Buckinghamshire with 230,000 residents according to 2011 census data. Sadly, however, the campaigns are in danger with a lack of people power to manage them.
The Daventry Parkway Project is in the stage where funding is our only blockade.
Burr and STM are actively seeking individuals to get them back on track: “STM’s main priority at the moment is to gain volunteers, as we’re lacking. We have no volunteers officially on our books at the moment, and more than 50 vacant roles.” He adds partnering with local campaign groups to deliver a project more efficiently is essential, the likes of the Kingsbury Station Project.
It is not just people the charity needs; money is critical too. “The Daventry Parkway Project is in the stage where funding is our only blockade,” Burr adds. “We’re looking for £15,580 to go towards a Statement of Opinion feasibility study commissioned by STM, as well as funds to cover admin costs.
“We’ve got the support of West Northamptonshire Council, but we’d still like a fair bit of autonomy, which is why we’d like to commission the first professional study.”
Spend, spend, spend
At the recent UK Budget and Spending Review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a raft of projects that would receive Government investment as part of its levelling up agenda. Among them, Wales will receive financial support for the Porth Transport Hub, connecting road and rail services across the town, and £50,000 towards reinstating passenger rail links between Gaerwen and Amlwch as part of the Restoring Your Railway ‘Ideas Fund’.
For England, projects that have secured financial backing include £7m towards the restoration of passenger rail links between Totton and Fawley in the South East; reopening stations in the South West, including Wellington and Cullompton, as part of a £5m package.
In the West Midlands more than £1bn has been allocated for projects like the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro expansion and Sprint Phase 2 over five years, as well as funding to develop early-stage ideas for the reinstatement of links between Stoke and Leek, and Oswestry and Gobowen; and in the East Midlands, Leicester station has been identified for revitalisation.
For northern England, where the government says it is focusing on levelling up, the Treasury earmarked hundreds of millions of pounds. Projects to secure financial support include the transformation of networks across the Tees Valley, such as upgrading Middlesbrough and Darlington stations and improving local rail links as part of a five year, £310m project. Further, more than £1.7bn has been allocated across Manchester and Liverpool for next-generation Metrolink tram-train vehicles and battery power for rolling stock to expand the Merseyrail network.
Burr believes regional transport is essential if areas are to thrive; but for all the passion he and others like him have, it is politicians and stakeholders at local and national levels that can really make a difference.
“I’ve had great engagement from organisations such as Network Rail, Avanti West Coast, and especially West Northamptonshire Council, who support the Daventry Parkway scheme in particular,” he says.
This is just the beginning though, with more to come in the months and years ahead he says. STM wants to introduce more regular events for each project, where local stakeholders will be able to register for or even request to host.
“This is all part of big changes coming to Sustainable Transport Midlands by early-2022,” Burr says. It seems, in his own words, age is on this young visionary’s side.
Main image: Sustainable Transport Midlands CEO Harry Burr. Credit: Sustainable Transport Midlands