Boris Johnson Faces Backlash From Northern England Over Rail Plans
Boris Johnson was accused by local leaders and Conservative politicians of breaking his promises to northern England as he prepares to announce a railway strategy expected to scrap part of the flagship high-speed HS2 network, a move critics warn will undermine his “leveling up” agenda.
Speculation is growing in Westminster that ministers will axe the eastern leg of HS2 between Leeds, Yorkshire, and the East Midlands, and downgrade plans for a separate new line between northern cities. Regional newspapers coordinated a warning to the prime minister on Tuesday: “Deliver what you promised.”
The row risks becoming toxic for Johnson as he seeks to show new voters in so-called red wall seats -- those former Labour heartlands in northern England that switched to the Tories in the 2019 general election -- that he’s serious about delivering prosperity to all regions of the U.K.
So far ministers have declined to comment on the detail of the so-called integrated rail plan before it’s published on Thursday. But Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak sought to counter the negative headlines, telling broadcasters: “I can tell you it will transform connections in the Midlands and the North, and it comes on top of the budget where we announced record investment in local transport.”
Johnson’s government is expected to pull the plug on the eastern leg of HS2 after the estimated cost of Europe’s biggest infrastructure project spiraled beyond 100 billion pounds ($134 billion). That would be seen as a victory for Sunak as he seeks to curb public spending that soared in the pandemic.
“If we lose key elements alongside losing the final phase of HS2 we are missing the point here, we are not willing to put our money where our mouth is,” Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton in North Yorkshire, told the i newspaper.
The expected move would see the completion only of Phase 1 of the planned HS2 network, between London Euston station and Birmingham in central England, Phase 2a, taking it onward to the junction station of Crewe, and the western leg of Phase 2b terminating in the northern metropolis of Manchester.
Some reports suggest the eastern route will still get new tracks north of Birmingham and south of Leeds, but without a high-speed connection between the two.
Regional leaders and politicians will also closely scrutinize the level of funding for the Northern Powerhouse Rail program. Previously dubbed HS3, the project aims to speed connections between northern cities, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east via Manchester and Leeds.
The government hasn’t denied reports that it will upgrade most of the existing route rather than build an entirely new link, as originally envisaged. But ministers may offer sweeteners, including a tram system for Leeds.
The government is “fully committed to strengthening rail links in all cities” in the Midlands and north, and recognizes the “importance of improving journey times across the country,” Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters Tuesday when asked about the reports.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, representing business leaders in northern England, said scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 would be a mistake and undermine Johnson’s pledge to “level up” the country.
“Without the benefits to areas such as Yorkshire and the North East, HS2’s status as a project to drive the whole of the U.K. is undermined considerably,” NPP director Henri Murison told the BBC.
The main opposition Labour party seized on the reports to criticize the government. Ministers are attempting to “quietly back out of promises made on the vital major infrastructure projects those communities need so badly,” Labour’s transport spokesman Jim McMahon said in a statement.
But others defended the move. Howard Wheeldon, a transport consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said HS2 would be a white elephant, with “not a jot of properly founded evidence that supports the likelihood of substantial economic benefits.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.