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27 October 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 5:16am

The politics behind government backing for HS3

David Cameron and George Osborne have given joint support for proposals to improve services across the Pennines.

By Anoosh Chakelian

There’s no route, no timetable agreed for building it, and no plan for how the money for it will be committed. These are the almost inevitable credentials of the follow-up project to the existing financial and political minefield, HS2, proposed this week by the original project’s chief, Sir David Higgins.

The government has given full backing to plans for “HS3”, which would bring new rail links in the north of England, improving services across the Pennines, especially shortening journey times between Manchester and Leeds.

David Cameron is backing the plan for HS3, and the government has agreed to produce a strategy looking at the options for delivering such a project. An interim report will be produced in March.

Why, when the controversial HS2 itself is yet to find its feet, is the government supporting an uncosted follow-up infrastructure project that even Higgins himself admitted is just “the start of a conversation” on the BBC’s Today programme this morning?

Although he tried to underplay HS3 as a big, HS2-style, project by saying it’s “not just a single project” and would rather tackle challenges in the north involving “rolling stock, electrification, port challenges, freight blockages”, the BBC is reporting that it could be more expensive than HS2.

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The reason is political. At the start of the summer, George Osborne was talking a great deal about creating a “northern powerhouse” with a new high-speed rail project, and the word around Westminster is that his plans for infrastructure projects in the north of England will feature in the Autumn Statement this year.

However, it’s not just about wooing northern voters. There is also an element of coalition rivalry here. During their party conference, when they weren’t coyly espousing the radical nature of staunch centrism, the Lib Dems’ positive case for remaining in government was dominated by a commitment to infrastructure plans. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, at a fringe event, gave a hint that he was looking for new proposals in the Autumn Statement that would make further “progress” on infrastructure spending.

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So HS3 is not just a case of the government trying to outplay Labour in empowering northern cities. It’s about whether the Tories or the Lib Dems can gain the most ground by promising the most attractive-sounding infrastructure plans for the voter base residing in those cities. Even if these are at present more dreams than plans.