Ahead of their involvement in the Transport for the North: The Full Rail Vision Event we’ve been speaking to Shoosmith’s Partner David Mathias…

Q. What are you most looking forward to at the Transport for the North: The Full Rail Vision Event in which you’re sponsoring?

With publication of the Integrated Rail Plan expected soon, it is important that we continue to lead the conversation on the future of transport in the North. Delivery of much needed upgrades to the networks we use is key to securing long-term economic growth for the region. That is not just for the benefit of those of us in the present, but for future generations of Northerners, who by 2050 should be within ninety minutes of multiple levelled-up economic centres in the North. 

The event therefore allows us an opportunity to publicly discuss these issues. There is a huge amount of opportunity here, which is really exciting, but there are also serious challenges to overcome. We need collaboration at all levels, but first we need to encourage open debate. We need ideas and innovation, and platforms such as this with BEN are a great way to share those views and strive to find solutions that, ultimately, will create a more connected country.

Q. Shoosmiths have grown over recent years to become a £154m + turnover firm, to what do you credit this success?

In short: our people. Everything comes from that. Our strategy is to be the leading UK law firm famous for its client experience, but in order to achieve that you need a firm foundation that can only be achieved through having a supportive culture that encourages creativity and innovation but also comprises people who are all working to the same goals. And that requires different teams and offices who enjoy working together. We want our people to enjoy what they do as, from that base, clients receive the best service and we are then able to foster long-term relationships with our clients, from which comes sustained financial performance.

Q. How does Shoosmiths work with infrastructure clients in the public and private sector to achieve their ambitions?

We provide a ‘cradle to grave’ service, guiding our clients through every stage in the lifespan of an infrastructure scheme. We add value from the very first step in the inception of a scheme, identifying areas where issues might arise and setting out a road map for how these can be avoided. Being on board at an early stage allows us to interrogate the justification for the scheme and really get under its skin to better understand the local, regional and, in some cases, national impacts of its delivery. At Shoosmiths, we are not ‘yes men’ – if we identify issues that cannot be avoided then we are not afraid to counsel consideration of alternatives or revisions to the proposed scheme. As lawyers, we ensure that the requirements of statute, guidance and due process are followed throughout, minimising the risk of successful legal challenge to the scheme if it receives the necessary consent. Should the scheme end up at Inquiry, we identify suitable experts to provide evidence in support of the scheme and deal effectively with the representations being put forward by opponents of the scheme. 

Q. Which schemes represent the highlights in your career and what did you learn from them?

When I was starting out, I worked on the Mersey Gateway Project, at the time the largest infrastructure project in the country. The Project was being delivered during the previous recession, at a time when local authority budgets were incredibly tight and the NSIP regime had not yet come into force. Working on the Project really demonstrated to me how important infrastructure schemes could be to an area’s regeneration and economic growth goals.

Since then, I have worked on a number of transformational infrastructure schemes, from the Trinity Gateway rail/bus transport interchange in Bolton through to the highway amendment/improvement scheme at Junction 10 of the M6, one of the most congested stretches of motorway in the country. A consistent highlight has been the extent of the team spirit and togetherness that builds in the delivery team. Being part of a team of professionals with a common goal is particularly rewarding, especially when the community benefits of the work that you are doing can be measured and, in some cases, seen with your own eyes as a scheme is built out. Other highlights are more wide-ranging. For example, on M6 Junction 10, the bridges supporting the local highway network were coming to the end of their serviceable lifespan and the new scheme presented an opportunity, not only to replace the existing bridge structures, but also to create a solution which addressed the heavy use of this junction, minimising the impact of commuters using the route in the future. For Gedling Access Road, it was delivering a scheme that had been in the Council’s contemplation for 30+ years that would not only deal with existing congestion, but would also future proof the local highway network and accommodate housing delivery within the local Borough Council’s administrative area.

Q. You launched your Social Mobility Action Plan last year – what does that entail?

Shoosmiths has been committed to social mobility for many years, but in the past few years we have brought further structure to our efforts to have maximum impact. We signed the Social Mobility Pledge in 2018, a campaign led by former UK Cabinet Minister Rt Hon Justine Greening, and since then have been working with the Pledge team to develop a Shoosmiths-owned action plan. We have also just become part of their Purpose Coalition – the next phase of what it means to be a purpose-led, responsible business.

Our plan is anchored around our geographic network, combining a review of efforts to date, local socio-economic data as to areas of greatest challenge / need, and localised recommendations. Our office heads and groups of colleagues in each location are actively encouraging the plan’s implementation in such a way that resonates with both business and community.

Q. What does the Northern Powerhouse vision mean to Shoosmiths?

With offices in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, the vision for the Northern Powerhouse is critical to Shoosmiths and our clients in the region and beyond. When then Chancellor George Osborne first mooted the idea of the Northern Powerhouse, the level of expectation in the region was palpable. Over six years later, we still have very little that is tangible to show for it. The current government’s commitment to the levelling up agenda generated column inches however, prior to the announcement of the location of the UK’s new infrastructure bank, there has been very little in the way of action.

Hopefully the location of the bank will be the first of a number of steps towards decentralising some of Whitehall’s functions to the regions. It is not, however, the announcement some were waiting for. Whilst many have been working from home during the pandemic, the issues with cross country rail travel have not gone away. We will soon be back to some semblance of normality, when trains that are long past their sell-by date are being used by a far higher number of commuters.

Without Northern Powerhouse Rail, the thought of commuting on one of those over-crowded, oft-delayed services will be nauseating to some. It is critical for both our clients and our colleagues that this transformational programme of rail investment proceeds.