What the HS2 U-turn means for the levelling-up agenda

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The eastern leg of the HS2 rail link from the West Midlands to Leeds will be axed, the government has confirmed. 

Northern MPs and businesses had been “steeling themselves for disappointment” ahead of publication of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), said The Mirror, as changes to the government’s plans for high-speed rail links in the region had been long expected. 

The “Northern Powerhouse” rail route, a proposed new line from Leeds to Manchester via Bradford, has also been scrapped. 

It will instead now consist of a new high-speed line between Manchester and Huddersfield with “upgrades” that include full electrification of the rest of the existing line, reported The Times

The cuts have raised questions about the government’s “levelling-up” agenda, the loosely defined ambition to reduce regional inequalities in the UK. There have also been accusations of breaking election promises – the 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to “building Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester”. 

Speaking to the BBC this morning, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab denied the government was breaking promises to “level up” the country by scrapping key components of proposed HS2 plans. He called the new plan “good for the whole country”, adding: “We are entirely delivering on the aspiration and ambition of the levelling up agenda.”

But ahead of the announcement, there were already worries that existing funding commitments would not be enough to “deliver levelling up”, according to a body that advises the government on infrastructure, reported The Yorkshire Post

In a new report, the National Infrastructure Commission said there was “currently no pipeline of urban transport projects at the scale likely to be required in coming decades to address the impacts of congestion on growth and productivity in the busiest cities with the most growth potential”.

“Current commitments may not be sufficient to deliver levelling up,” it said, adding that “tens of billions” more investment will be needed. 

Northern leaders have reacted angrily to the news. James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council, said the decision reinforced “the old north-south divide”. 

“We believe that anything less than a commitment to the eastern leg of HS2 as part of an integrated network with Northern Powerhouse Rail in full would undermine any pledge to ‘level up’ our regions – at a time when we need it most,” he told the BBC.

And in an open letter to the prime minister, Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin urged Johnson to “keep his promises” on HS2 and said the new plans were “limiting your levelling up ambitions”. 

A leading article in The Times earlier this week, before publication of the IRP, said: “It was only last year that Boris Johnson declared, without equivocation, that HS2, Britain’s high-speed railway from London to Birmingham and beyond, would be built ‘in full’.”

Scrapping the eastern leg to Leeds is “a blow to the entire rationale of HS2”, said the paper. “What is left of the vaunted levelling-up programme if the main promise of better transport links is abandoned?” it asked. 

Indeed, these “long-promised rail upgrades weren’t supposed to be some nice-to-have icing-on-the-cake of the government’s overall levelling up plans,” said Nick Golding in the Local Government Chronicle, but “the underlying bedrock”.  

They have been a “fundamental pillar” of Johnson’s “offer to left-behind regions”, with the PM assuring voters as recently as June on a campaign visit for the Batley and Spen by-election that the plans for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail would go ahead.

It seems that the prime minister’s word “amounts to nothing”, said Golding. 

Scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 will have certainly “angered northern political leaders”, said Tamara Cohen for Sky News. But what will cause Johnson “more trouble” with his own red-wall Tory MPs is the downgrade of Northern Powerhouse Rail. 

“Conservative MPs in Yorkshire are braced to brand it an economic missed opportunity, which will have consequences for generations,” said Cohen. 

For many, this was “a test of how much money he and the Treasury are prepared to commit to ‘levelling up’”.

“Money is obviously a major factor” in reducing HS2 plans, said Politico, which reported “briefings flying around all week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak wanted to reduce costs”. 

According to research by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the government could save  £14bn by scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds and by downgrading its plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, said The Times

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