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Boris Johnson has been accused of a “betrayal” of the North and Midlands as the Government set out its scaled-back plans for rail investment in the region.
There was anger in the Commons as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that the eastern leg of HS2 was being scrapped while the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) was being curtailed.
The Prime Minister insisted the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) would double capacity between Manchester and Leeds and treble that between Manchester and Liverpool.
At the same time he said people could not have “everything at once”, while going ahead with the HS2 extension would mean “smashing through unspoilt countryside and villages”.
However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had “ripped up” promises he made that HS2 would go all the way to Leeds and that there would be a new NPR line from Manchester to Leeds.
“This was the first test of ‘levelling up’ and the Government has completely failed and let down everybody in the North. You can’t believe a word the Prime Minister says,” he said.
Sir Keir said voters in Red Wall seats, the former Labour strongholds which backed Mr Johnson, had been treated as fools by the Prime Minister.
“He has made two big, big commitments to the North of England in relation to those two rail projects and he’s just ripped them up.
“He’s trying to pass it off. He’s treated people as fools and people aren’t fools.
“Certainly, in the last two or three weeks, people are starting to think the joke isn’t funny any more.”
The main elements of the IRP are:
– The extension of HS2 from the East Midlands to Leeds has been scrapped. HS2 trains will instead run on existing lines.
– NPR between Leeds and Manchester will be a combination of new track and enhancements to existing infrastructure.
– Plans to fully electrify the Midland Main Line and the Transpennine route, and upgrade the East Coast Main Line.
On a visit to a Network Rail logistics hub near Selby, Mr Johnson dismissed the charges of broken promises as “total rubbish”, insisting the Government would deliver on them “eventually”.
“Of course there are going to be people who always want everything at once. And there are lots of people who are [going to] say, look, what we should do is carve huge new railways through virgin territory, smashing through unspoilt countryside and villages and do it all at once,” he said.
“The problem with that is those extra high-speed lines take decades, and they don’t deliver the commuter benefits that I’m talking about. We will eventually do them.”
In the Commons, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the Government was investing £96 billion in 110 miles of new high-speed line, “slashing” journey times across the region.
He said that under the original proposals HS2 would not have reached the region until the 2040s, while the revised plan would bring forward the benefits to passengers by “at least a decade”.
“This plan will bring the North and the Midlands closer together, it will fire up economies to rival London and the South-East, it will rebalance our economic geography, it will spread opportunity, it will level up the country,” he said.
The Department for Transport said the improvements to the Leeds-Manchester line would cut journey times from 55 minutes to 33 minutes – just four minutes slower than they would have been with NPR – while costing £18 billion less.
However, Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon said it was a “betrayal of trust” of the people of the North and the Midlands while £40 billion of the promised £96 billion had already been committed.
“He promised that the North would not be forgotten. But he hasn’t just forgotten us, he has completely sold us out,” he said.
“We were promised a Northern Powerhouse, we were promised a Midlands Engine to be levelled up. But what we have been given today is a great train robbery.”
There was criticism also from the Conservative chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, who said voters had been led to expect more from the Prime Minister.
“This is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and leaving the others to explain the arrival of moonlight,” he said.
Robbie Moore, the Tory MP for Keighley, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the plan, which had “completely short-changed” his constituents.
“We are one of the most socially deprived parts of the UK and we must get better transport connectivity,” he said.
“I still want to see Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered with a main stop in Bradford so that we can unlock our economic opportunities.”
Louise Gittins, interim chair of Transport for the North, which advises the Government on the region’s transport needs, said the plan was “woefully inadequate”.
She said: “Leaders from across the North and from across the party political divide came together to ask for a network that would upgrade the North for this century and in line with the rest of the country.
“Our statutory advice asked for an over £40 billion network, but the Government has decided to provide even less than half of that.”