Budget 2021: Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 betrayal fears grow – Tom Richmond

RISHI Sunak’s Budget will be widely remembered for the tsunami of Treasury leaks – a contempt of Parliament that forced Hugh Dalton to resign as Chancellor in 1947 and left Ken Clarke red-faced when his 1996 speech was leaked to the Daily Mirror.

This was Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson discussing Northern rail services during the recent Tory party conference in Manchester.

What is more perturbing here, in the current Chancellor’s adopted county, is what Sunak did not say in his first non-crisis Budget since the start of Covid – confirmation that Northern Powerhouse Rail, including a new city centre station in Bradford, and the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds will still go ahead as planned.

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Not one word. Far from being the “transport revolution” that the Richmond MP promised to preside over (one of last weekend’s Budget leaks and press releases passed to a think-tank to help circulate), forgive me for concluding that the Government is about to go ‘‘full steam reverse’’ and – just like some trains here – backtrack on past commitments.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak during a recent visit to a rail construction site.

And if this proves to be the case – and, let’s face it, Sunak had ample opportunity in such a wide-ranging speech to signal his support in a speech designed to herald a new era of optimism – it will be regarded as a prima facie breach of trust that risks undermining the Government’s entire levelling up agenda.

After all, there have, according to Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, been at least 60 official Government announcements on the status of Northern Powerhouse Rail since 
George Osborne – a former Chancellor – first proposed a high-speed railway between Leeds and Manchester in 2014 before a wider plan to improve connectivity for the North’s 15 million residents emerged.

These are in addition to Boris Johnson’s own undertakings which, by my calculations, now stand at 11 since he stood for the Tory leadership in 2019 – or Sunak’s own assurances when I questioned him on Northern Powerhouse Rail and the importance of Crossrail-style rail links across the North in the summer of last year.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak during a recent visit to a rail construction site.

I remember it well. He nodded in agreement when I ventured that delivery of this scheme was a question of trust in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. “Now we need to put flesh on the bones and that’s what we are doing,” he maintained at that time.

Fast forward nearly 18 months and the politician who once warned, as a new and relatively unknown backbencher, that the Northern Powerhouse must not be allowed to become a vacuous “slogan” now risks presiding over the great train robbery’s political equivalent.

Sunak tried and failed to play the innocent when Sky News presenter Trevor Philips pressed him on both schemes last Sunday, saying the pre-Budget ‘‘leak’’ was about intra-city travel – “that’s about how do we get people who live in and around a city to be able to get into the middle of it and out again easily” – rather than inter-city transport.

He said details about the future of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail would be “announced shortly” in the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP). Evidently, it’s still to be finalised despite Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, telling MPs on Monday that it would be remiss of him to “pre-empt anything the Chancellor may say later this week”. Not a chance.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak outside 11 Downing Street before delivering his Budget.

In a Budget described by Sunak as this choice – “to retreat or to invest” – the closest that he came to saying the words ‘‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’’ was a hint that the IRP “will be published soon”. It’s just like waiting for the Northern train that never comes...

The assumption, given the volume of unauthorised leaks from Whitehall, is that the Government is scaling back NPR and that it will bypass Bradford – an area that boasts some of the worst transport links in the country and which, as Britain’s youngest city, has the most to gain from more rapid rail connections across the North.

Yet, in doing so, the Chancellor neglects the fact that Bradford’s productivity is just 70 per cent of the national average – hence its potential to re-emerge as one of the great cities of the North – and faster train services will make it easier for people to access jobs.

The other critical points that Ministers overlook at their peril is that the eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail will use the same infrastructure – part of their respective businesses cases – and further delays now will only derail this region’s future prospects as pressure grows on the Government to build a second Crossrail line across London (even though the first route is still not open).

This isn’t levelling up or tackling social mobility after Rishi Sunak asserted: “For far too long the location of your birth has determined too much of your future.” It’s a potential derailing of the North’s future ambitions and prosperity that no amount of Treasury leaking or ‘press releasing’ will plug unless the Chancellor looks again at the Integrated Rail Plan and accepts that investing in the North will help all of Britain to get back on track.

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