Andrew Stephenson, Member of Parliament for Pendle and newly appointed Minister for HS2, has reiterated the government’s commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed high-speed rail link running between Liverpool and Hull, also known as HS3 or “Crossrail for the North”.
Speaking at the New Statesman Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester, he told delegates that the government was “going ahead with both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail”, and that they were not “either/or projects”.
Recently, in the wake of spiralling costs for phase one of the HS2 line between London and Birmingham – estimated at over £100bn – there have been rumours of postponing the second phase of HS2 north of Birmingham, a measure recommended by Oakervee review led by a former HS2 chairman. There has also been a consistent lack of clarity over when and where work on the Northern Powerhouse Rail line would begin.
Metro mayors and local authority leaders in the North of England have feted the full HS2 and HS3 projects as one of the primary keys to orthern prosperity. Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, also speaking at the conference, emphatically made the case in favour. “This isn’t necessarily about speed,” he said. “It’s about capacity, connectivity and agglomeration… It’s about the whole – to use the government’s language – ‘levelling up’ strategy.”
Stephenson promised the audience his aim was to “reverse decades of underinvestment in our northern railways, to fire up the northern economy just as our original railways did.”
Steve Rotheram, Metro Mayor for Liverpool City Region, speaking alongside Nick Forbes, highlighted the importance of expanding capacity on rail running West to East and North to South, particularly in the context of a post-Brexit UK.
Liverpool, a city which was built on transatlantic trade, could be a beneficiary of any future bilateral US-UK trade deal, and any cargo landing in the North West will need an integrated transport network once it reaches port. However, Rotheram pointed out the gap between the government’s rhetoric and their actions, saying that there was “scepticism that HS2 will ever see it past Birmingham… There’s saying and there’s doing. Just because somebody repeats something again and again doesn’t mean it’ll actually happen.”
Striking a similar tone, Forbes told the audience that “the last time we had a minister for a specific project like this was back when we had one for the Millennium Dome. I hope it doesn’t turn out like that did.”
The Minister linked the government’s support for the projects to the historic general election results at the end of 2019, which saw dozens of northern seats in traditional Labour heartlands – the so-called “red wall” – taken by Conservative candidates for the first time in decades. “That sent a message,” he said, “that so many people feel left behind… The PM has said we must never take the North for granted… We have a mandate for change.”
Since the election, the government has signalled that it has no desire to pursue a laissez-faire, fiscally tight Thatcherite approach on the economy, shifting significantly towards higher public spending and state intervention. Earlier this week the Resolution Foundation forecast that Boris Johnson and the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, would raise the government’s annual spend to over a trillion pounds, eclipsing the levels seen in the Blair years and bringing state spending as a percentage of GDP to over 40 per cent – the highest since the 1970s. “Now austerity has been confined to history… now we’ve delivered Brexit, it’s time to repay the trust of northern voters to ensure nobody is left behind,” Stephenson told the conference.
The government’s spending commitments fly in the face of parallel promises to reduce the public debt over the course of the parliament, run a surplus on day-to-day spending, whilst simultaneously not raising taxes. There have also been reports of a centralisation of power in Number 10 at the behest of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser, and there are concerns that the new preference will be for centrally delivering major infrastructure projects, rather than devolving spending and decision-making to the regions.
New Northern Powerhouse minister, Simon Clarke, will not attend cabinet or be elevated to a cabinet position, despite earlier indications that his predecessor, Jake Berry, would be. Stephenson told the conference that as a northerner, he too felt, “frustrated that so many of the decisions have always been made by civil servants and ministers in Whitehall”, but that “this government has devolved to cities, combined authorities and metro mayors across the UK”. As the government’s policy programme and “levelling up” agenda begin to take shape, many will wonder which side of the contradictory hodgepodge of strategies and policy commitments will win out in the end.