Labour split over HS2 after cities back fast rail

THE Labour leaders of England’s largest regional cities have written to the party leadership in Westminster expressing “urgent” concern at their wavering stance on HS2 and warning of open warfare with Northern town halls ahead of the next election.

Ed Balls MP

In a move which puts piles further pressure on Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls to make a firm commitment to the proposed high-speed rail line after weeks of uncertainty, all eight leaders of the powerful “Core Cities” group of councils – which includes Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester – have written letters to Labour’s new transport spokeswoman amid concern at the party’s wavering stance on HS2.

“We’ve all done it,” said Coun Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds City Council and a member of the Core Cities cabinet. “I’ve written in strong support (of HS2), saying our cities need investment in railways – particularly in the North.”

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All eight letters were directed to Mary Creagh, the MP for Wakefield, who was installed as Shadow Transport Secretary soon after Mr Balls first questioned the “benefits” of the £42.6bn railway line last month. She replaced Maria Eagle, one of HS2’s chief supporters within the Shadow Cabinet, paving the way for a possible U-turn.

David Cameron and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin have since made clear the 20-year project will likely have to be abandoned if it no longer enjoys broad cross-party support.

Mr McLoughlin yesterday published two new reports reiterating the business case for HS2, including one which warned of 14 years of delays on the east coast, midland and west coast main lines if they are upgraded instead.

The most damaging words for Mr Balls came from Sir Albert Bore, the Core Cities group’s spokesman on transport issues.

He delivered a direct warning to Ms Creagh and Morley and Outwood MP Mr Balls that they risk a damaging schism between the Labour leadership and town hall chiefs across the country.

Describing Labour’s new stance on HS2 as “an urgent issue, of immediate concern to all of us,” Sir Albert wrote: “It is absolutely essential there is no delay in the schedule, and that the cross-party consensus is maintained.

“HS2 is the single most important infrastructure project currently planned in terms of bringing growth and jobs to all the city regions. I have to say that recent messages from senior Labour politicians have not helped our cause at all.”

Sir Albert - the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council - highlighted recent statements from both Mr Balls and Ms Creagh which “appeared to signal a significant weakening of the party’s commitment.”

And in a veiled threat to Labour’s coming election push, he added: “If the party continues to put out such a negative message on HS2, I will be concerned there will be a protracted public conflict between the party leadership and the Labour-led core cities at a time we should be working closely together to develop a winning campaign for 2015.”

The Conservatives said Labour were now “in disarray” over HS2. Mr McLoughlin pointed out the scheme was conceived by Labour when in Government, and highlighted Mr Balls’ own public commitment to “cross-party consensus” on infrastructure schemes.

Mr Balls showed no sign of relenting yesterday, insisting he would be assessing the Government’s updated business case over the coming months.

“My job as the Shadow Chancellor and potential Chancellor at the next election is to be hard-headed about standing up for value for money for taxpayers,” he said.

“We’ve got to make sure these benefits are there and are real, and that this is the best way to spend a very large amount of money.”