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19 November 2021

Does the Integrated Rail Plan break key pledges on levelling up?

Northern leaders have reacted with fury at the government’s proposals to scale back the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

By Jonny Ball

In 2019, the Conservative Party manifesto promised to “build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester and then focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle”. 

It was partly on the basis of promises to “level up” the north of England, as well as a commitment to “get Brexit done”, that the Conservatives won that year’s general election by taking northern and Midlands seats that had sent Labour MPs to Westminster for generations. 

But the plans revealed in the long-delayed Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on 18 November, renege not only on manifesto commitments but on more than 60 instances in which the Conservatives have committed to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) since the election. At a New Statesman event in Manchester last year, the Rail Minister Andrew Stephenson was categorical, saying there would be “no ifs, no buts… we will go ahead with both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail”, while adding that the two were “not either/or projects”. 

NPR was first proposed in 2014 by the then chancellor George Osborne. It was to be the key feature of the Northern Powerhouse. In an interview for Spotlight earlier this year, Jim O’Neill, former government minister and vice chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said NPR was “central” to the whole project. 

Behind the plans lay a theory of the benefits of “agglomeration” – there was a vision for connecting the great cities of the north of England into a single, hyper-productive economic area to rival London and the south-east. NPR would slash journey times and boost transport capacity between the cities of the Trans-Pennine corridor – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, as well as Newcastle to the north-east. This would integrate the north’s labour markets and increase collaboration between businesses, entrepreneurs and universities, boosting innovation, research and development, and improving productivity by enabling wider access to skills, markets, products and services. 

NPR would join up with a Y-shaped high-speed line from London – HS2 – the first phase of which is already under way. The second phase would see the line splitting in Birmingham, then travelling onwards to Manchester in the west and Leeds in the east. 

Shapps confirmed on 18 November that HS2’s eastern leg would be shelved, replaced with track upgrades between Derby and Sheffield. He described the announcement as “the biggest single act of levelling up of any government in history”. 

On NPR, the original plans drawn up by Transport for the North were similarly watered down. A total of £96bn has been committed – the greatest investment in rail for “100 years”, according to the PM – but half of it has already been allocated to the line between London and Birmingham. Shapps has claimed the new plan will deliver higher capacity and shorter journey times quicker than full-fat NPR. But, as the IRP document itself discloses, many of the benefits will not be seen until the mid-2030s. 

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Rather than a high-speed track connecting Manchester and Leeds, the new line will stop just short of Huddersfield, after which the already existing track will be upgraded. West of Manchester, a new high-speed line will stop at Warrington, destroying Liverpool’s hopes for extra capacity to accommodate the increased traffic it will likely attract with its newly awarded free port status. Hull won’t enjoy either a new track or line upgrades, and Bradford, a city that is notorious for its poor connections, will not benefit from a new station on the high-speed line as it had hoped. 

“It’s the equivalent,” says Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne, “of promising someone a three-course meal, then giving them a bag of crisps and persuading them that it’s a good alternative because they’ve been fed quicker.” 

Northern leaders have described the proposals as “a betrayal”, and some have even signalled that they have no faith that even in the diluted form the plans will be delivered. “Given this government’s record, we take these commitments with a huge pinch of salt,” said Dan Jarvis, Mayor of South Yorkshire. 

“When the Treasury got dragged into looking at NPR in some detail,” O’Neill told Spotlight just a few months ago, “I know for sure that the officials responsible were much more persuaded about the multiplier effects than they were for HS2. So it would surprise me if Rishi’s spads said ‘no, let’s can it’… This Prime Minister has made so much of a song and dance about big infrastructure projects.” 

But can it they have. Or at least half canned it. Conservative MP Edward Leigh, a long-time opponent of HS2, described the original project as a “white elephant”, but the new, altered project as “a white elephant without a leg”. 

Many have pointed the finger at Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s fiscal conservatism and the Treasury’s arbitrary adherence to a 3 per cent cap on public sector net investment. The government has already increased capital spending to a level not seen since the 1970s, and even prior to the IRP announcement the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that the 3 per cent limit would be overstepped. 

It’s not an excuse that northern leaders find convincing. 

“We’ve always been treated as second-class citizens as northern people and residents,” Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, told a press conference after demanding a free vote in parliament on the proposals. “We’re not having it. We were told we were going to be levelled up. We were told things would be different. Different means we’re at the front of the queue, not always told that the money’s run out and it’s been spent somewhere else. That is implicit in what was announced.” 

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region, quoted Institute for Public Policy Research statistics that showed that if the north had received as much transport spending per head as London since 2010 then it would have had £86bn more to spend. 

“This isn’t politics,” Burnham said. “This is about the future of the north of England for the next 100 years. That is the significance of what has been announced. We are not going to allow our children and grandchildren to still be consigned to second-class citizen status.” 

Only the next election will show if Red Wall electors in the north and Midlands feel the same way.