On the 29 January, the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps did something few other living politicians had done before: he nationalised a rail franchise. In the last month of operation under the company Arriva, one in every fourteen Northern Rail journeys was cancelled, just under half were delayed in the year up to January, and overcrowding was routine. The chaos was emblematic of the historic underinvestment in rail infrastructure, and in the region.
Transport upgrades are a key part of the Northern Powerhouse strategy. The £39bn plan for Northern Powerhouse Rail would link communities from Liverpool through Manchester and Leeds to Hull and Teesside. The network is based on the completion of HS2, the high-speed line which will connect London to Birmingham by 2028-31. A second phase, going to Manchester and Leeds, is estimated for completion by 2035-44.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally gave the go ahead for the controversial HS2 project this month, despite costs reportedly ballooning to £106bn, or twice the original budget. Just £5bn was announced for investment in regional buses and new cycling infrastructure over the next five years. The status of the second phase links remains unclear. The government will conduct a further review, looking to cut costs.
Council leaders, senior business figures, and think tanks argue Northern Powerhouse Rail is crucial for the region’s economic development and for solving the transport crisis. In a joint statement this month, mayors and council leaders from across the region wrote, “The North of England needs new rail lines that go north-south and west-east. London isn’t being forced to choose, it’s getting Crossrail and HS2; we shouldn’t be forced to either. We need HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered in full.”
Luke Raikes, a researcher with think tank IPPR North, believes Northern Powerhouse Rail will mean development of cities and towns in ways that are more inclusive and effective. “If you build essentially a whole new labour market by joining up different cities you let all sorts of interesting things happen, you enable economies to develop in interesting ways and complement each other.” This, he says, is very different to London where the density of jobs in the centre has created significant transport and housing problems. But he is cautious about promises made by government to invest in northern infrastructure: “Find[ing] the money, investing the money and making it actually happen is not easy with big projects or even with small projects.”
The money should be there. At a Manchester press conference during the general election campaign then chancellor Sajid Javid said his budget would easily cover the estimated budget for Northern Powerhouse Rail. An analysis of the new borrowing rules by The Times found room for £78bn spending beyond current government commitments. But this does not necessarily take into account the rising bill for HS2 nor other spending promises. Luke Raikes points out that people in the North are used to “broken promises” and will wait to see “spades in the ground.”
According to one senior Conservative interviewed in the Financial Times this scepticism may mean the government faces pressure to focus on smaller initiatives that can be delivered within this parliament. Reopening the Ashington to Northumberland Park train line could be one such project. Closed to passenger transport in 1964, the revival of the service is one of the key issues being pushed by the new Conservative MP for Blyth Valley, Ian Levy. His vision is to connect his constituency into the rail and Metro networks. This would allow residents to travel to work and tourists to access the beaches and regenerated town while removing congestion from local roads.
When asked, Levy signalled a cautious view on HS2, saying “people have to keep an eye on the budget and just make sure things don’t run away because it is quite easy to do.” But he remained warm to Northern Powerhouse Rail, saying, “Anything that we’re doing like that as a government, to help by connecting people along longer journeys is brilliant.”
Spotlight’s survey of councillors in Northern England (see page 12) found continued scepticism over HS2, with 59 per cent of respondents saying they were not in favour. That figure rose to 80 per cent among Conservative councillors. Some 57 per cent of Labour councillors opposed HS2 and two thirds of Green councillors. By contrast 64 per cent of Liberal Democrat councillors were in favour of the scheme.
There is still some criticism over how much large-scale public investment in transport can act as a panacea for economic development. Professor Henry Overman from the London School of Economics argues that, while improved transport will have a significant impact on the northern economy, it will not address poverty and inequality within cities and towns. Instead, he says investing in education and skills should be a higher priority. This would enable more people who live in areas of high unemployment close to cities and towns to get better work and tackle inequalities. “We have got communities 20 minutes from huge concentrations of jobs and very bad social economic outcomes,” Overman says.
Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake is clear that education, skills and training are part of the same Northern Powerhouse vision. “Where we have local employers being directly in touch with the training providers, working with us and linking into schools – that’s where we can really see the step change we need,” she says, adding that there are young people and workers who currently cannot take up education and training because of poor transport.
Blake is equally clear that transforming transport in the North means Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2. “We don’t want to talk about either NPR or HS2, if we are serious about transforming the opportunities for the North we have to talk about both,” she says. From this, she believes, local transport plans can work to move people out of cars and onto public transport, bicycles and to walking – improving health and the local environment. Decisions made in Westminster on HS2, devolution and the government’s Williams Rail Review are the main things holding this back, Blake says.
Northern Powerhouse Rail alone is not the answer to the region’s transport problems. Without complementary local rail and bus schemes, the impact could be far less than promised. With increased devolution these schemes would be less vulnerable to the tides of national politics, or departmental wrangling in London. Instead, this would be a conversation about the North, in the North, with northern decision-makers.
For Luke Raikes that is the benefit of devolution: “You make it someone’s full time job to develop their region, their town, their city, and if they don’t the electorate has their say.”