Boris Johnson handed huge levelling up warning as axe looms for HS2 leg to Leeds

The Government’s existing funding commitments to public transport improvements “may not be sufficient to deliver levelling up”, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has warned - days before the cancellation of the Yorkshire leg of HS2 is expected to be confirmed.

The NIC, which provides expert advice to the Government on infrastructure issues, has produced a new report stating that there has been “some progress” recently - such as the £1.4bn announced in the Budget for green transport schemes in South and West Yorkshire.

But it adds, “there is currently no pipeline of urban transport projects at the scale likely to be required in coming decades to address the impacts of congestion on growth and productivity in the busiest cities with the most growth potential”.

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“Current commitments may not be sufficient to deliver levelling up,” the report said. “Previous analysis undertaken by the Commission suggests that investment in the region of tens of billions above planned investment will be needed.”

Boris Johnson is facing a backlash over reports the HS2 link to Yorkshire is being cancelled and Northern Powerhouse Rail plans watered down.

It comes as a political backlash grows ahead of the publication of the Government’s long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan on Thursday.

Anonymous briefings to national newspapers have suggested the plan will outline £96bn of investment in the rail network but it is unclear whether this will be additional new funding or the redeployment of existing commitments.

There are widespread expectations that HS2 Eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds will be curtailed, with a high-speed line between the former city and the existing East Midlands Parkway planned instead.

It has also been reported there will be no new line between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford as had been hoped for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission.

The idea of only building high-speed rail to the East Midlands Parkway as a possible cheaper alternative to the HS2 Eastern leg was proposed to Government last year by the NIC.

When asked about the issue by The Yorkshire Post during an online briefing yesterday, NIC chair Sir John Armitt said: “With regards to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, we gave Government a series of recommendations.

“They were set against different budgetary constraints and it is for the Government to make its choice based on what it believes is affordable against the different consequences and the economic benefits of different routes.

“Frankly I think we should wait a few days and see what it is the Government concludes.”

It comes as Northern Research Group of over 50 Tory MPs said they were “deeply concerned about the reported watering down of commitments on Northern transport infrastructure”.

A statement from the group, which is chaired by former Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry, said, “The NRG is reserving its judgement until the Integrated Rail Plan is published.

"However, the NRG has reminded the Government of the repeated commitments that it has made, including Prime Minister’s own commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

Mayors call for rethink on rail plans

West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin has written an open letter to Boris Johnson after reports the HS2 route to Leeds will be axed and Bradford will be missed out on the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme.

She writes: “The government has a choice to make. It can choose to unlock the potential of the North, or it can let us down once again, limiting your levelling up ambitions, before you’ve had a chance to finalise the Levelling Up White Paper.”

Ms Brabin said: “The media reports this weekend suggesting that the Government will deliver a watered-down version of the essential rail links we need to level up the North are extremely worrying.

“If we are to give the people of the North the fair chance they deserve for prosperity, equality of opportunity and for the vital decarbonisation which will ensure we meet critical climate targets then the Government must give us the HS2 Eastern Leg in full and deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail, with the crucial new stop in central Bradford. This is alongside the upgrade and modernisation of the existing trans-Pennine route.

“The letter stresses that there is no room for breaking the promises that have been made many times by this Prime Minister to truly connect the great cities of the North. Levelling up is in the interests of the nation as a whole, not just the North and it cannot be achieved without this rail plan.”

South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis MP said: “We’ve already waited months to see the Integrated Rail Plan, and now we know why. It seems like, as we feared, the government is going to try to get away with doing as little as possible to help the North.

“The reports at the weekend were deeply worrying. If true, then it seems like the Integrated Rail Plan won’t deliver either Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) or the HS2 Eastern Leg as the Prime Minister himself promised.

“Delivering these projects in full would bring vital investment into the economy and improve the lives of people in South Yorkshire and the rest of the North. NPR is critical for linking up our Northern towns and cities while the Eastern Leg of HS2 would support NPR and give Yorkshire a high speed link to the rest of the network.

"These are not optional extras – they are the bare minimum needed to redress the unacceptable and longstanding neglect of transport in the North.

“The government is either serious about levelling up or not. If they are, we will support them. But if they are not, people in South Yorkshire, or anywhere in the North, will not be fooled by half-measures and spin. We know what transformation looks like – and this isn’t it.”

Downing Street defends ambitions

Boris Johnson remains committed to improving rail links in the Midlands and the North of England, Downing Street has said.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman refused however to be drawn on reports that ambitious plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail are to be scaled back ahead of the publication later this week of the Government’s integrated rail plan.

“We are committed to transforming rail connections across the Midlands and the North with shorter journey times and an accelerated timetable for delivery that allows us to bring in real benefits to communities as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.

“This will be a significant investment of taxpayers’ money and it will take some time to deliver. What we want to do is make sure that it is delivered as fast as possible so that people see real tangible improvements to their journey times.”

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