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Bradford’s high-speed rail saga exposes Britain’s short-termism

The government may be revising its decision not to include the Yorkshire city in its rail plans – and that can only be a good thing.

By Zahir Irani

Bradford is Britain’s youngest city (average age: 36.7). It also happens to be one of the worst connected. When the government’s Integrated Rail Plan was unveiled in 2021, there was widespread criticism that plans to connect Manchester with Leeds via Bradford had been dropped. Metro mayors and opposition figures claimed the watered-down proposals were a betrayal of levelling-up promises. But the government is reassessing. The Department for Transport (DfT) promised in a 17 July written statement to look at the evidence for better connecting Bradford, and examine the case for a new station as part of the £96bn Integrated Rail Plan. But to add a note of caution, the rail minister Huw Merriman said the move “does not guarantee further interventions will be agreed or progressed”.

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging there are signs that the government is rethinking the way it reneged its commitments to the Yorkshire city. The government’s short-term fiscal approach and lack of proper, sustained capital investment too often leave the country poorer and less productive over the medium and long term. Yes, updating our transport infrastructure and boosting connectivity would represent large spending outlays. At a time of rising interest rates and ballooning debt obligations, committing several billion to these upgrades may seem foolish. But in relatively short periods of time, these improvements pay for themselves via higher rates of regional growth, flourishing local economies, boosted employment prospects, agglomeration effects, higher productivity, higher Treasury tax receipts and increased private-sector activity.

In 2018, the then transport secretary Chris Grayling made a “very strong and personal commitment” that Bradford would benefit from Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). In 2022, the prime minister Liz Truss promised to deliver the high-speed rail line between Liverpool and Hull in full and said the service would stop at Bradford. “I’m very clear about that,” she added. This was after her predecessor Boris Johnson scaled back the scheme. During a Conservative Party hustings in 2022, Rishi Sunak said “an unequivocal massive yes” when asked if he was committed to “levelling up” the north of England.

[See also: What’s causing HS2’s endless downgrades and delays?]

Now in No 10, Sunak appears to have honoured the commitment he made a year ago to a Bradford Breakthrough and Chamber of Commerce delegation to look in detail at the report from the Transport Select Committee scrutinising the Integrated Rail Plan. It’s likely this is what led to Merriman’s announcement accepting the committee’s recommendation that the government should reconsider the case for the development of a new station in Bradford, albeit in more equivocal terms.

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The updated business case for the NPR project is expected later this year. Both the local council and members of the Transport Committee eagerly await its findings.

[See also: HS2 is a symptom of our terminal decline]

The potential benefits of linking Bradford to NPR are well researched. The National Infrastructure Commission’s assessment of rail needs for the north and Midlands recognised that serving Bradford with a high-speed line was the best option to stimulate trade and productivity in the region, emphasising that it has “the highest potential benefits of all the packages, both in terms of productivity and trade”.

According to Transport for the North, a new city-centre station in Bradford on the NPR network, sometimes labelled HS3 or “Crossrail of the North”, would generate £3bn in additional annual gross value added by 2060. It would also create 27,000 additional jobs by 2060, achieve a 10 per cent uplift in residential land values, provide access to 1.3 million additional jobs and 86,000 additional businesses within a 90-minute radius, and secure £30bn in city-centre growth and investment.

Decisions like these need to be less about politics and more about economics. The long-running saga of “yes, no, maybe” stymies long-term investment calls. The private sector needs certainty and consistency, not prevarication.

The same approach has afflicted the HS2 high-speed rail link to Bradford’s neighbouring city of Leeds. First it was on, then it was off and now it might, or might not, be on again after DfT launched a two-year study to consider the most effective way to run HS2 trains to Leeds.

Bradford has been crowned the UK city of culture for 2025. This shows how fortunes and confidence in the city are improving. Major redevelopment projects are already under way, not least City Village, One City Park, Darley Street Market and Bradford Live. These show the city is becoming a destination of choice for culture tourism. But profound challenges remain. We need cross-party commitment for better transport connectivity for Bradford.

Long-term borrowing to invest in large capital-intensive projects, delivering returns through stimulating growth and generating incalculable multipliers, is not the same as financing day-to-day spending by inflating deficits. It’s understandable that the Treasury is cautious of increasing the government’s revenue-spending responsibilities without fully costed compensatory tax increases. But that is a world away from engaging in proper public investment through government bond issuance, for programmes that will provide a stable platform for economic activity for generations to come.

The government needs to think beyond immediate cost and remove blockages that prevent places like Bradford from progressing into the future. Lets hope DfT and its ministers are listening.

[See also: Could the UK make trains free to use?]

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