Yorkshire rail downgrade seems like a classic political fudge - Justine Greening

As for so many other passengers every day, when I recently travelled back from Bradford to London by train I found the journey was a long one - three hours plus.

I reflected on how much the city could benefit from its connectivity being improved not just with the region but a wider economy too.

Not least to keep up with Bradford’s own ambitions for itself, as a city collectively working hard to build its own future.

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Bradford’s Opportunity Area stands out for its innovation and successful efforts to improve education outcomes. Its Glasses for Classes approach has helped improve literacy and been adopted more widely nationally.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Elsewhere, the University of Bradford’s work is striving to make sure that the city’s talent can be deployed into those careers on their doorstep.

Through its Graduate Workforce Bradford programme – I had the chance to meet those involved in my recent visit – the university is developing pathways into careers for its skilled graduates.

In doing so it is encouraging investment from outside employers like PWC to access that talent, and creating the young, successful role models that can in turn inspire the city and region’s next generation to aim higher.

This is hard, long term work improving lives one person at a time. But it is making a real difference. These local and wider regional efforts elsewhere in places like Leeds and Sheffield should be supported at a national level.

I know from my own time as Transport Secretary that investment decisions are often finely balanced.

But ultimately, there’s no dressing up this decision. NPR has been downgraded. And Ministers have decided that whilst west of the Pennines will get HS2, east of the Pennines will not.

What is now proposed is a more partial rail plan when it comes to its benefits for Yorkshire.

It seems like a classic political fudge.

The Transport Secretary’ statement in Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Yorkshire Post article made much of the reduced travel times between some regional cities and towns and how benefits are being delivered faster.

Yet Thursday’s announcement would have been far easier to sell if Mr Johnson’s Government hadn’t spent the last few years telling communities across the region the opposite, that ‘full fat’ High Speed 2 and NPR was exactly what they needed for levelling up the region and exactly what was planned.

Why this ministerial change of mind? They should be clear – people in Yorkshire are owed that much.

If the cancelled eastern leg of HS2 and reworked NPR is down to the state of the nation’s finances post-Covid, it would have been better for Ministers to be honest and up front.

People might have understood an argument that any country has to live within its means. Yet even in that case, why should Yorkshire particularly bear the largest long-term brunt of the national financial impact of Covid when it comes to rail investment?

And last November’s much trumpeted Treasury Green Book reform was supposed to help make sure infrastructure decisions are made more fairly.

At the time it was portrayed as bolstering the case for rail investment and HS2.

But almost exactly a year later, this ‘new’ approach has nevertheless concluded that whilst the Manchester HS2 leg and its region is worth investing in, the Yorkshire leg is not. Why?

Alternatively, perhaps Ministers are essentially now arguing they no longer believe that full high-speed connectivity north of the East Midlands is the answer to levelling up the opportunities and lives of people in the region.

There could be a legitimate argument to be made that levelling up in Yorkshire has more to do with issues of education or digital access, health and wellbeing issues, or the need to stimulate more entrepreneurship and home grown creation of opportunities, or a combination of all of those and more.

But if Ministers now believe levelling up Yorkshire isn’t so much about infrastructure investment, then what is their new, broader levelling up plan for Yorkshire?

If ‘full fat’ HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail is not the levelling up answer, Ministers should set out what is.

Having stepped back from a longstanding rail plan that regional leaders have put so much time and effort into, and over so many years, the least they and people in Yorkshire should expect is that Ministers can set out their new thinking. If they take away one levelling up plan, people deserve to see another.

The long-mooted Levelling Up White Paper might still show a way forward but remains unpublished even as Christmas approaches.

With so much grass roots work happening to boost opportunity, it becomes ever more important for the Government to set out its own broader ambitions for the region. Yorkshire doesn’t just need high-speed rail, it now needs high-speed levelling up plans too.

Justine Greening, who was born in Rotherham, is a former Conservative MP for Putney, serving as the Secretary of State for Transport from 2011 to 2012, for International Development from 2012 to 2016 and for Education from 2016 to 2018.

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