Leeds 'could miss out on HS2 because of Goverment's failure to keep costs down', claim Labour

A lack of faith in the Government's commitment to HS2 in the business community is undermining critical investment in the North, according to a leading regional lobbying group.

Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership called on Ministers to start construction of the Yorkshire leg of the controversial scheme from Leeds to show that "levelling up the North is still on the agenda".

It comes after a Labour shadow minister claimed cities like Leeds could miss out on the benefits of HS2 due to "Government failure to get a grip of ballooning costs".

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Speaking in the Commons, Labour's shadow transport minister Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi criticised the Government over its handling of the project during consideration on Lords Amendments to the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Bill.

Boris Johnson promised in February that HS2 would be delivered in full. Pic: PABoris Johnson promised in February that HS2 would be delivered in full. Pic: PA
Boris Johnson promised in February that HS2 would be delivered in full. Pic: PA

The Government accepted amendments which would require the views of residents in Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire to be sought on the impact of HS2 construction work on road traffic and the environment, with a report to Parliament.

The consultation exercise will also look at whether local transport links with the high-speed network are sufficient and if not to consider improvements, including the building of new railway stations and the reopening of lines.

The future of HS2 has been the subject of fierce debate due to its rising costs and environmental impact, though in February Boris Johnson committed to building the route in full following the findings of the Government's Oakervee review.

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In recent weeks further fears have emerged over the Leeds leg of the scheme after a report from the National Infrastructure Commission recommended concentrating on regional links with the budget available for rail projects in the North and the Midlands.

Mr Singh Dhesi told MPs: "I am deeply concerned about the Government's approach and commitment to HS2. Yet again it seems the Government are overspending and under-delivering.

"They repeat ad nauseam about levelling up the North but their continuing refusal to commit to delivering HS2 in full, including the Phase 2B leg to Leeds and their 40% budget cut to Transport for the North, is the exact opposite of levelling up.

"I sincerely hope that cities like Leeds are not going to miss out on the benefits of HS2 due to Government failure to get a grip of ballooning costs."

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Transport Minister Andrew Stephenson said it was important to pass the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Bill without further delay.

He told the Commons: "Already this Bill has taken far longer to go through Parliament than was anticipated when the legislation was introduced in July 2017.

"I do not want to delay it further today. I want this section of the railway to be built so we hasten the benefits of HS2 to the North as soon as possible."

On accepting a new consultation for those impacted by the route, he said: "There has already been considerable consultation with the people of Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire.

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"Nevertheless, I think that accepting this amendment is the right thing to do. As minister for HS2 I have been charged with resetting the relationship between the HS2 project and local communities."

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership which represents business and civic leaders, said: “The Government needs to learn the lesson that Whitehall officials being left to make detailed decisions whilst scrutinising HS2 Ltd - instead of the infrastructure experts in the private sector - leads to misspent funds and spiralling costs.

“Nevertheless, people and businesses across the North shouldn't have to pay the price for overspends on Phase 1. Both HS2 and NPR are still needed in their entirety to transform connectivity across the North and power the recovery post-Covid with confidence.

"Starting construction from Leeds, as well as upgrading the mainline north to Newcastle in readiness, would make a strong statement from Government that levelling up the North is still on the agenda.

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"We are now at a point where many businesses are calling the Government's commitment to the project into question, which is undermining critical investment in sectors such as workspace and housebuilding.”

Conservative former minister Sir John Redwood suggested the Government should publish their initial thoughts on how railway demand will change in future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He told the Commons: "The nature of work and the use of the office is going to change and we may well find the intense pressure on the Monday to Friday evening peak, around people tending to start work at 9am and intending to leave at 5pm or half past, will diminish - that people will want much more flexible use of the railway, they won't be going every day, and they won't necessarily be going or leaving at peak hours."

Sir John added: "I do think we're due from the Government, and from the industry representatives that advise, their interim thoughts on what the shape of the railway and railway demand will look like in two or three years time, assuming all has gone well with vaccination and there is a pretty good robust recovery.

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"I don't think we should assume it's going to be a recovery to the same work and railway travel patterns we had before."

Earlier this month, Mr Stephenson warned that cancelling HS2 would send a "terrible signal" to the world about the UK's plans to recover from the pandemic and would have a "chilling impact" on investment.

He defended the controversial project linking London with the Midlands and North amid fears the Yorkshire leg of the scheme may not be delivered in full.

And giving evidence to the Commons Transport Committee, he said the fundamental case for the high speed rail scheme still stood despite the pandemic dramatically changing travel habits.

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