Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the Northern Powerhouse, set up by the then-Chancellor George Osborne. Since then, there has been some progress – most notably with Transport for the North taking the first steps towards matching major decisions with Northern priorities.
Connectivity 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.
HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) are the railway network that the North has been waiting for since the Victorian era. Together, they will create a North which acts as one economy, connecting places so near and of such value that many more can enjoy and experience them. It will see services between Leeds and Manchester every 10 minutes, each taking under half an hour, making commuting quick and simple. Bradford, the UK’s youngest city, will be transformed, taking under 10 minutes to get to Leeds. Significant improvements in frequency and time savings will be seen across the region, from Sheffield to both Leeds and Manchester, from Doncaster to Hull, and Darlington to Newcastle.
HS2 is not simply about getting to London more quickly. It will unlock capacity for local services, just as NPR will do for freight and local passengers across the Pennines, using the soon to be electrified line from Huddersfield into Leeds. On a practical level, the £39bn cost of Northern Powerhouse Rail is partly based on maximising the parts of a new line being built for HS2 (e.g. the Leeds-York track or the new tunnel from Manchester Piccadilly to Manchester Airport). As a result, if HS2 was scrapped, a significant portion of the budget would still be needed for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to work.
There’s also the question of jobs and skills. HS2, delivered together with Northern Powerhouse Rail, will be transformative. It will play to the strengths of the North as world-leading in wider infrastructure, including the specialist capability like the new High Speed Rail Institute at Leeds University.
The next Prime Minister will be one of two politicians already committed in the pages of the Yorkshire Post and the Evening Standard to unlocking the potential of the Northern Powerhouse. The way in which we deliver HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail needs to be integrated, as well as ensuring that upgrades to the existing Network Rail lines are also properly funded. If there is a decision to review HS2, we must remind people that we are yet to start building the section between Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham. It needs to be committed to in full, so that the North gets the new railways which are essential to unlocking productivity.
If the next Prime Minister wants to win a General Election, 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 together, built as an integrated extension of new lines with upgraded ones. We need a new high speed network for the Northern Powerhouse and onto the Midlands, from Carlisle to Crewe, from Bradford to Birmingham.