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The HS2 train arrives at Labour conference

The Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham challenges Keir Starmer to commit to “true” Northern Powerhouse Rail.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

The ghost of HS2 past looms over the Labour Party. Keir Starmer’s confirmation that a Labour government would not reverse the cancellation of the £36bn Manchester leg of the rail network was a prominent feature of the first day of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool this week.

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, was perhaps the Labour figure most visibly irked by the cancellation, accusing the Conservatives of treating northerners as “second-class citizens”. He has also claimed he was “frozen out” by the government over the decision, and called for his party to protect the land that has been acquired between Birmingham and Manchester for HS2, so the line could be revived at a later date. Last week Starmer said he couldn’t commit to reversing HS2’s cancellation – partly because of the suggestion the government might sell off necessary land before the next election.

The conflicting desires of Burnham and the more fiscally stringent central Labour Party were exposed during a fringe event at the party conference where Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, was joined by the Greater Manchester Mayor. “We all know… that transport in this country is broken,” Haigh told an overcrowded room of local politicians, party members and journalists. She reaffirmed the party’s commitment, first announced at last year’s conference, that a Labour government would “radically overhaul” rail – “and that means bringing our railways back into public ownership, where they have always belonged”.

But there was no sign from Haigh of reinstating HS2. The best she could offer was that she, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, and Starmer would “look at” how to deliver “the high speed [rail] network that the country truly deserves”.

During her opening remarks Haigh turned to Burnham, who looked forlorn as she outlined the “damaging” social and economic consequences of the HS2 cancellation. “These fantastic northern leaders were completely cut out of the decision,” she said. “It was really drawn up on the back of a fag packet in hotel rooms in Manchester [where the Tories were holding their party conference], while the people of Greater Manchester and their elected leaders were totally shut out of that decision.”

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But did Labour consult metro mayors in the north before announcing that the party would not reverse the Tories’ decision on HS2? “We were in touch with Keir’s office running up to the decision because we were getting more and more worried about it,” Burnham told Spotlight after the event. “It was an act of vandalism, and I keep coming back to that because that is what it was. [The government] took money that [was] for infrastructure in the north and scattered it everywhere.”

[See also: It’s Rachel Reeves’s party now]

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In place of the Birmingham to Manchester HS2 link, the government has pledged that the £36bn it would have cost will be redistributed to “hundreds” of new transport projects in the north and the Midlands. (Though places included in the government’s “Network North” proposals go as far south as Plymouth.)

Burnham said that he understood that it would be “difficult” for Labour to completely reverse the decision. “What I am asking of the party… is to try and keep those [land] protections on the Birmingham to Manchester line,” he said. He suggested, too, that Labour should try to delay any attempts by the government to kill the act of parliament that was passed granting permission for the link to be built.

Burnham told Spotlight he hoped that the widespread uproar over HS2 could be a catalyst for “true” Northern Powerhouse Rail, a proposed major high-speed rail programme to connect the north-east and north-west of England, first promised in 2010 by George Osborne, when he was chancellor, but never completed. Burnham suggested that building a new line starting from Liverpool and serving major northern cities, eventually going up to Newcastle, was “what the north of England needs, and should get”.

He acknowledges that realising that vision will be difficult. Haigh has promised more detail on Labour’s plan for the railways will come soon. “Keir, Rachel and I have committed to working with our fantastic mayors and leaders, unions and industry across the country, to look at how we can ensure that we deliver the high-speed network that the country deserves and deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail,” Haigh told the fringe event.

In his conference speech on Tuesday (10 October), Starmer reiterated that a Labour government would be committed to economic growth. The hopes harboured by the likes of Haigh and Burnham, however, will be in tension with the clear, overarching philosophy of a Reeves-led Treasury: fiscal discipline.

[See also: New polling confirms Labour is now the party of business]