Protests against HS2 in the area where the railway is planned to pass through near Lymm in Manchester on April 8, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need to go beyond HS2 and build a Liverpool-Leeds rail link

A high-speed rail connection between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds would be transformative for the north.

Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds are separated by a mere 65 miles. Yet board a train at one end of this corridor and it will be nearly two hours before you alight at the other end. We ought to be seriously considering building a high speed alternative.

The current Transpennine Express trains trundle across the Pennines with a meandering listlessness reminiscent of a distracted pony. They huff and puff and creak and groan. Calling them "express" trains is an outrage against the English language. Transpennine passengers enjoy glorious scenery, but appalling speeds. As Andrew Adonis has drily noted, it is "quite an achievement" that the 45 mile journey between Leeds and Manchester takes almost an hour. Although the route is set to be electrified, the work will make only a marginal difference to journey times. 

Of course, Britain is riddled with slow rail connections and plenty of trains huff and puff, but this case is different. This transport corridor links three of the six largest cities in England. Liverpool is the fastest growing city outside of London and Manchester is increasingly heralded as the UK’s second city. Surely our major cities should be better connected?

This issue is even more pressing in light of the economic importance of bringing businesses closer together - so-called "agglomeration economics". Nowadays, economic growth seems increasingly to be driven by large urban hubs where workers and businesses in close proximity compete, collaborate and copy each other much more intensively than they otherwise would do. Mixing in these ways drives innovation and productivity gains. As Evan Davies explained in his recent documentary Mind The Gap, London benefits from these "economies of distance" in a way that other parts of the country do not – and it is powering Britain’s economic recovery as a result.

Yet Davies also emphasises that the area from Liverpool through Manchester to Leeds is the prime candidate for an extended travel to work zone outside of London. With populations expanding again after decades of decline, these cities have the potential to form a robust corridor of economic activity, a northern hub.

This will depend, however, upon better transport links. As things stand, the area is hobbled by poor rail connections. Research by the LSE found that approximately 40 per cent fewer commuting journeys are made between Leeds and Manchester than would be expected given the cities’ proximity and size. Such statistics will hardly surprise regular Transpennine travellers, but they underline the extent to which poor transport connections are holding back business growth.

The government’s current plans for HS2 do nothing to address this problem of east-west connectivity. In fact, while the government has portrayed HS2 as an economic panacea for the north, the matter is far from clear. Many experts have argued that HS2 is more likely to draw more wealth into London than it is likely to spread it northwards. Unsurprising, then, that northerners show little enthusiasm for HS2 with 22 per cent strongly opposing the scheme in Yorkshire and only 10 per cent strongly in favour.

By contrast, a high-speed rail connection between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds would be transformative for the north, drawing journey times down toward those of a standard Underground commute and thereby boosting business growth. It would cost far less than HS2 and would be more readily deliverable.

As things stand, however, we are in danger of allowing the controversy swirling around HS2 to stymie further thinking and plans for high speed rail, plans which should be judged on their own merit. Irrespective of whether the case for HS2 adds up, a connection from Liverpool to Leeds ought to at least be on the policy agenda as an option and subject to the careful cost-benefit evaluation of any major infrastructure project. When discussing high speed rail, we ought to be going beyond HS2.

David Kirkby (@kirkbydj) is a researcher at Bright Blue 

Photo: Getty
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.