IN his first major domestic policy speech in Manchester, Boris Johnson said he wanted to be the Prime Minister that did for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project “what we did for Crossrail in London” and has promised to publish detailed plans this autumn, part of the wider network which includes better connections from Sheffield to Hull, across to Manchester Airport and Liverpool and up to Darlington and Newcastle.
Last week, the Government announced a review of high-speed rail link HS2 – which Boris Johnson promised during the Tory leadership campaign. Led by the former chair of HS2 Ltd, Douglas Oakervee, the review panel will consider whether and how Europe’s largest infrastructure project which connects London, the Midlands and the North should proceed with a “go or no-go” decision by the end of the year.
The North will be watching very closely over the coming weeks and months to ensure the key challenge of rebalancing the economy of our country, levelling up the North to have the same benefits as the South, is central to what is considered.
I have long argued that transport investment alongside wider key ingredients including education, skills and the devolution of power is critical to creating a Northern Powerhouse capable of taking on and leading the world. If you talk to the businesses that are going to create the jobs for children growing up in the North today, they’re dependent on infrastructure and connectivity. At the moment our transport system, whether it is North-South or East-West, simply isn’t up to the job.
Alongside our civic leaders and those from business, I am not opposed to looking at how we can ensure HS2 delivers value for money and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will be engaging positively with the review to further assess the case for why HS2 is necessary. It is particularly heartening that John Cridland, chair of Transport for the North, and Sir Peter Hendy, chair of Network Rail, have been appointed to the Government’s own panel as we have full confidence in them due to their understanding and commitment to the Northern Powerhouse.
To draw on the wider expertise in the North on these questions, which could not have been fully reflected by the Government, the Northern Powerhouse review into HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail to inform the Oakervee work will involve both politicians and business leaders. They will be focusing on the economic underpinning of the case; not transport as a priority in and of itself.
Its purpose is to offer a Northern perspective and be bold in what the implications of fully committing to rebalancing our economy means. It will make realistic proposals to support Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s long-held view, shared by business leaders and politicians across the North, that major infrastructure investment is needed.
The review will be overseen by a panel of respected and expert individuals, including Coun Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council; Kevin Hollinrake MP, the co-chair of the Northern Powerhouse All Party Parliamentary Group; Chris Oglesby, CEO of Bruntwood; Paula Dillon, a respected Yorkshire businesswoman, and Sir Howard Bernstein, the former chief executive of Manchester City Council.
HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are potentially transformational for cities like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, including Manchester Airport, but also for those like Newcastle, Preston and on to Glasgow in Scotland.
If they benefit from significantly better connections, but also under an integrated plan for a new railway which works in concert with Northern Powerhouse Rail to take city to city trains off our largely Victorian network, then the economic benefits will be greater than simply doing either project in isolation. Quantifying the scale of the multiplier benefits of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the cost savings of joined up delivery, is a key area of focus if the case for continuing with HS2 is to be proven once more.
So far, we have had warm words from the Prime Minister, but now we need to see action to match the rhetoric. If Boris Johnson wants to have any chance in the General Election which many expect in the coming months, not just the praise of Tory activists who live on the first phase of the HS2 route to Birmingham and oppose it, and believes in the Northern Powerhouse, then we need infrastructure that delivers for the North.
This means delivering both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail if the evidence proves this to remain a compelling case. Scrapping the HS2 project altogether for political reasons, despite the case for economic rebalancing, would send a very negative message to the North.
Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.