Connecting Leeds and Sheffield will help us build out of a recession - James Lewis & Terry Fox

A lot has changed in politics in the last year, and yet for our two cities which await a faster, better-connected rail network we remain stuck with the status quo. Friday will mark the first anniversary of the publication of the government’s Integrated Rail Plan back in November 2021, where plans to provide high-speed rail connectivity between our two cities were put on hold in favour of a study on how best to bring HS2 trains to Leeds from the East Midlands.

A commitment of £100m was made to fund this work. One year on and we’re still waiting; still stuck with only one ‘fast’ train service which takes the best part of an hour to travel the 29 miles between us.

Despite the Transport Select Committee’s recommendation to the government that they must publish the timetable for the study by September 2022, we’re not only still waiting for this but we don’t even have the study’s initial terms of reference to begin with.

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We really are no further forward than we were a year ago caught in more rail delays and uncertainty. With businesses and residents on roughly 1,000 acres of safeguarded land in Leeds stuck in limbo about the future.

Sheffield's ever changing skyline. PIC: Scott MerryleesSheffield's ever changing skyline. PIC: Scott Merrylees
Sheffield's ever changing skyline. PIC: Scott Merrylees

Liz Truss had announced plans to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail in full, and for Leeds and Sheffield we had hoped that this would mean bringing high-speed rail connectivity between us as a vital NPR connection. But with Truss gone and a new cabinet in place, we are left in the dark once more.

The unwanted milestone of the year’s anniversary of the IRP’s publication coincidentally falls the day after the government’s autumn statement.

Already there is speculation that a review into all capital spending could have severe ramifications for the delivery of commitments of the IRP, which only then delivers one mile of additional new line in Yorkshire - a county with the same population and economic firepower as the country of Scotland.

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Providing a high-speed link between Sheffield and Leeds, combined with wider proposed improvements to the existing regional network including Bradford, will transform connectivity between Yorkshire’s principal cities.

Delivering stronger connections between Leeds and Sheffield will allow our economic centres to finally function more like a single economy, encouraging agglomeration and knowledge transfer between industry and academic institutions – improving our productivity and enabling us to compete globally alongside some of the world’s leading cities and regions.

Together we make up one of the three biggest regional economies in the UK outside London, supporting two million jobs and 175,000 businesses, with an annual GVA of £96bn and a GDP of £50bn.

We are already home to internationally-competitive businesses in growing sectors and clusters including our Yorkshire Space Hub cluster.

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World class universities, teaching hospitals, and research and translation organisations are fuelling success in knowledge-intensive industries, with thriving digital and creative businesses producing new products and services, and enabling growth across sectors such as financial technology and health technologies.

Our two cities, alongside the respective combined authorities, are driving plans for a globally-recognised Innovation Corridor, to harness our existing strengths by nurturing further growth and building even better links between our businesses and universities.

But a superior rail service is vital to the success of this corridor and our economic prosperity. It will improve sustainable access to labour markets so businesses can draw on a wider net of apprentices, graduates and skilled workers.

Getting this right, will not just improve the quality of life for people in our two cities, but connect regional towns and communities and unlock Yorkshire’s stifled potential.

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For the size of our combined economy, Leeds and Sheffield has nowhere near the equivalent rail connectivity. Aside from the one ‘fast’ train service which has an average speed of only 26 miles per hour, we have four other services which take much longer. This is significantly behind comparative UK neighbouring cities.

Capacity remains at the heart of our argument. Footfall in our stations is exceeding pre-Covid levels, even though train services have not. In Leeds City Station, footfall was 118 per cent to that of pre-Covid levels in the first three weeks of October. In Sheffield footfall is at 92 per cent compared to pre-covid and beyond that at weekends.

If further proof is needed that the demand for better connectivity between our cities is there, 90 per cent of daily journeys between Sheffield and Leeds are being made by car along the M1. We are in a climate emergency and carbon emissions must be reduced where they can.

At Thursday’s Autumn Statement the Chancellor has the perfect opportunity to commit to capital infrastructure spend to ensure growth, helping to build our way out of recession and continue our regions’ economic recovery.

James Lewis is leader of Leeds City Council and Terry Fox is the leader of Sheffield City Council.