Last November, when reports emerged that the Leeds leg of the HS2 high-speed rail line would be scrapped, Boris Johnson said accusations that broken promises had been made to the people of the East Midlands were “total rubbish”.
Perhaps he was right. In a public accounts committee session this week, those behind the £90bn-plus rail network, touted as an aid to levelling up, stressed that the government is not taking HS2 services to Leeds off the table, and that research on how trains could run to the region is “something which we are working through now”.
So what happened? Was it officially scrapped?
The government said it was: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons in November 2021 that following reviews into HS2, a rethink was needed, and it was determined that “strengthening regional rail would be most economically beneficial” for the region.
But in yesterday’s select committee meeting, Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary for the Department for Transport (DfT), said that a Leeds link was never fully written off.
“We’ve been clear and repeated in the IRP [Integrated Rail Plan] that the government remains utterly committed to running HS2 services to Leeds,” she said. “What remains undecided are the exact means of doing that.”
Kelly said a £100m study to assess “options for running services to Leeds, as well as looking at the mass transit system Leeds needs” will soon be taken forward. Leeds, with a population of over half a million people, holds the dubious honour of being the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system, an issue the Prime Minister highlighted prior to the 2019 election. “I always have to be a little cautious in giving any firm commitments but I hope we’ll be able to do so very soon,” she said when asked about a time frame of the review.
The £100m study is tagged to “significant design and development work”, Kelly added, and should a solution come up, further costs to the project will be endured.
Is the project on budget and on time?
Currently, phase one of the line, which runs between London and Birmingham, is under construction. Mark Thurston, the chief executive of HS2 Ltd, told the public accounts committee that spending for the first phase of the high-speed network “remains within” the overall budget of £44.6bn, which includes contingency funding.
However, in his fourth update to parliament on the progress of HS2 in March 2022, Andrew Stephenson MP, the DfT minister responsible for overseeing the line, said he was “concerned” about how far the project’s budget – which was decided in 2019 – could be stretched as inflation rises.
“Whilst these pressures are manageable within the target cost given the remaining contingency, I am nonetheless concerned at the rate of their increase,” he said.
All going well, phase one of HS2 will be completed between 2029 to 2033 – with further high-speed routes to Manchester and the East Midlands not to come until the 2040s.
Will HS2 really help regions level up?
When the news of the Leeds leg being “scrapped” broke last November, it was seen as the government “betraying” its promise to level up.
“This was the first test of ‘levelling up’ and the government has completely failed and let down everybody in the north,” said Labour leader Keir Starmer. Meanwhile, Andy Bagnall, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, said that “leaving out key pieces of the jigsaw will inevitably hold back the ability for the railways to power the levelling-up agenda and the drive to net zero”.
Piecing together how the line will help or hinder levelling up will pose “challenges” for local authorities and the HS2 developers, Clive Maxwell – director general of the High Speed Rail Group, which represents firms interested in the delivery of high-speed rail – told the committee.
He said that local leaders served by HS2 will need to come forward with ideas for surrounding land, as well as local transport plans that “make the most of the connectivity” offered by the line. “And they often need to be plugged into other sources of government funding to support some of those works, so there’s a big job to be done,” he added.
The DfT’s Kelly explicitly highlighted the government’s levelling-up agenda as a potential joint catalyst alongside HS2 to help improve neglected areas of the country. “Some of the new levelling-up mechanisms that have been put in place… [What] I’m hoping is that we can utilise that focus and that resource to ensure that in places where HS2 presents really big opportunities, we’re using all the levers of government to land those.
“It is a serious point because this is a great opportunity, as we know, and I think we should be using our resources and capacity.”