Britain’s attempt at building a new high-speed railway is turning out to be incredibly slow and convoluted, bringing into question our ability to get large scale infrastructure projects done. Throughout the summer there have been leaks from Whitehall suggesting the government is likely to drop plans to extend HS2 to Leeds.
The latest, in the Sunday Mirror, quoted an anonymous source as saying that halting the eastern leg would save £40bn and “there’s no way we’re going to see this built in our lifetimes”. Although some “Red Wall” Tory MPs are celebrating the potential cancellation of what they see as an overpriced white elephant, many Northern leaders reacted with dismay.
The Department for Transport denied the decision had been made, insisting the much-delayed integrated rail plan will “soon” outline the way ahead for major rail projects. That will include HS2 phase B, which was supposed to contain the western leg to Manchester and the eastern leg to Leeds. If Boris doesn’t put his foot down and ensure HS2 gets built in the north, then it really is a mystery what he stands for. His legacy will be a hollow one.
Boris took ownership of the project when he gave the green light an absurd eleven years after initial preparatory work began. He risked the anger of some Conservative MPs because he is a fan of big infrastructure projects and HS2 fits into his “levelling up” agenda. After taking this personal risk, chickening out now would make him look weak and leave the project in the worst of all worlds.
If the cancellation goes ahead then we will build enough of HS2 to annoy a lot of people, but not enough to maximise the benefits it can deliver. All its opponents will claim vindication and it will make the obstruction of future railway projects more difficult. Boosting East-West connectivity in the north is the transformative element of HS2. Without it, it’s simply a £41 billion project to cut 25 minutes off the journey from Birmingham to London.
The levelling up agenda already seems to be in trouble when Boris had such difficulty articulating it in his vapid levelling up speech delivered last month. This could be the nail in the coffin for what was meant to be a key part of this government’s ambitions, leaving Boris with little of substance in his policy programme.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which represents northern businesses, warned: “Without the western and eastern legs to Manchester and Sheffield on to Leeds as well as into north-east England, the whole of HS2 will be undermined in achieving its full economic benefits.”
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James Lewis, leader of Leeds city council, said the latest leak jeopardised 10 years of planning and consultation that had gained cross-party support along the eastern route. “I will be hugely disappointed if we are back to the drawing board,” he said. “The constant pipeline of projects in London moving forward suggests that levelling up isn’t in operation.”
Leeds is a great city, hampered like many northern cities and towns with inadequate transport connections. Leeds railway station is the busiest in the north and a notorious bottleneck. HS2 was supposed to include a new station in the city. If it’s cancelled, once again a great northern city is having its potential for greater prosperity and growth hampered by London-centric officials and politicians.
The potential of the north can be unlocked by connecting the region to maximise people’s opportunities for jobs, education and leisure activities. If the government doesn’t address the decades of underinvestment in the north’s transport networks, it quite simply doesn’t have a “levelling up” agenda.