TRANSPORT Secretary Justine Greening has been urged not to allow further delays to a high-speed rail network after confirming she will put off a decision on whether to go ahead until the New Year.
A decision on the £32bn High Speed Two (HS2) project had been promised before Christmas but is now expected in January as the Government considers whether to spend £500m building an extra tunnel in the Chilterns in the face of staunch opposition.
The project is due to cut journey times from Yorkshire to the capital by up to 50 minutes as part of a network that will link Leeds, South Yorkshire and Manchester to Birmingham and London by 2032 and could be worth billions of pounds to the region’s economy.
But there has been vocal opposition to the route of the first phase – from London to Birmingham – and Ms Greening has asked for more time to consider the responses to a consultation which concluded earlier this year before confirming whether the Government will go ahead.
Ms Greening said: “In order to ensure that my decision is based on a careful consideration of all relevant factors, I have concluded that I should allow myself until early in 2012 to announce my decisions.”
The high-speed rail project has split opinion, with supporters claiming it would create thousands of jobs and boost the economy while critics have branded it a white elephant. Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, in whose constituency the extra tunnel is being considered, has been among the critics.
However, business leaders and politicians in Yorkshire have urged Ms Greening to stand firm and go ahead with the project, for which David Cameron and George Osborne have both offered strong backing as they hope it will help to rebalance the economy.
Leeds North West Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland said: “Whilst there are concerns about the proposed route of HS2, this should not distract from the significant benefits a high speed rail network would have for many areas of the country, not least in Yorkshire and the surrounding regions. I would therefore urge the Minister not to delay the decision on HS2.”
Research has shown the significant benefits of the scheme to the region’s economy, and former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond was a passionate supporter of the project, which he described as the “last best hope” to tackle the North-South divide.
But Ms Greening, who grew up in Rotherham, has been more cautious about offering an opinion on the scheme since taking up her post in the autumn.
Penistone and Stocksbridge Labour MP Angela Smith claimed the Government was “running scared” of critics and Ministers had had long enough to decide whether to build extra tunnels.
“We need to be putting the pressure on and I will be writing to Justine Greening asking for a reassurance that the scheme will in fact go ahead and they’re still committed to it,” she said.
Kieran Preston, Director General of West Yorkshire transport authority Metro, said: “While it makes sense for there to be a short delay on these route details, what we really need to focus on is reducing the current 20-year timescale for constructing the link to Leeds.
“One way of bringing forward the proposed opening of the whole route and the huge economic benefits it would deliver would be starting construction from both Leeds and London.”
The second phase of the network is intended to have a station in Leeds and one in South Yorkshire, while the Yorkshire Post revealed recently that HS2 engineers have been investigating whether an extra one could be sited on the outskirts of York.