HS2 review is 'the first test of Tory's backing for the North of England'

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The impending decision from Government as to whether or not to commit in full to HS2 is the “first test” of its commitment to the North, one of the region’s leading MPs has said.

Former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn said that plan to connect Leeds and Sheffield with Birmingham and London with a high speed rail network represented a vote of confidence in the future of the country and that any Government would be judged for scaling back the plan.

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Mr Benn’s remarks, made during a CBI and Barclays Yorkshire and Humber MPs reception event in the House of Commons, come as a long-awaited review into HS2 is due to be published in the coming weeks.

Speaking in the Churchill Rooms, the Leeds Central MP said: “The Government will absolutely be judged on the promises it made to the North, all Governments are judged on the promises they have made.

HS2 work already underway.

HS2 work already underway.

“There are very high expectations, not least because of the large number of Conservative MPs who have been elected to seats that were not previously held by them.

“And I would say that HS2 is absolutely the very first test and if that were to be failed then I think that would send a very big message about the difference between the promises that were made to prioritise the North and the reality.”

Mr Benn added that he was “reasonably optimistic” that the scheme would go ahead following the comments of Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on the Andrew Marr Show in which he appeared to suggest it would be given the green light.

A review, ordered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and led by former HS2 Ltd chairman Doug Oakervee, was leaked last week and recommended that "on balance" the Government should go ahead with the railway, despite warning that its cost could reach £106 billion, compared to the £56 billion in 2015.

“You are either going to make a long-term investment for the next 150 years or we are not,” Mr Benn said.

“HS2 is a vote of confidence in the future, that is why businesses are so keen on it. It is a really big test for the Government.”

The scheme was also backed by Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton Kevin Hollinrake, who said the scheme was “about capacity and about connections, not to London but between Leeds and London”.

He added: “It is vitally important to connect the North to the rest of the country. That’s what London has and that is exactly what we need.”

Elsewhere Sheffield Hallam’s Olivia Blake said that the region should not be forced to choose between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, saying “you can have one without the other”, while Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad-Khan said he had reservations over the management of HS2 and that he needed “a little bit of reassurance that it will not be a mess”.

Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the Oakervee Review laid out what he claimed were a list of potential improvements to mainline rail services which could act as an alternative to HS2.

Lord Berkeley claimed electrification, extended platforms and longer trains are "quick wins" which would boost journeys in the North and the Midlands.

He identified the centres of Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Leeds as having the "greatest potential '' for improvements, due to the level of overcrowding on rush hour trains and also suggested lengthening the platforms at Leeds’s railway station.