Mayors demand pause on cut-price northern rail plan so full ‘levelling up’ assessment can be made

Northern Labor majors are demanding ministers to revisit the region’s original plans for high-speed rail so a full assessment of its potential ‘levelling up’ benefits can be carried out.

They have written to the Prime Minister, as well as the ‘levelling up’ secretary, Michael Gove, and transport secretary Grant Shapps, after it emerged no such economic analysis was done when ministers decided to scale the proposal back.

The Integrated Rail Plan, published in November, shaved £18bn off the plans for new east-west links put forward by the North – missing out Bradford and significantly reducing the size of the proposed high-speed network.

READ MORE: North’s own rail plan would have meant faster journeys and more trains, admits government – but it was too expensive

Since then, background papers published last month have revealed that while the North’s own plans would have provided the best connections and biggest cuts to travel times, they were considered too expensive.

However no proper economic assessment had been done to see what benefits the full network could have brought to the North in the longer term, including any ‘levelling up’ of the region’s economy.

Michael Gove visiting Manchester last month
Michael Gove visiting Manchester last month

In the letter, published on the day Michael Gove is due to join northern leaders on-stage in Liverpool at the Convention of the North, the mayors say it was ‘very strange, to say the least, that the IRP, the government’s flagship leveling up policy, has not been fully assessed for its leveling up impact’.

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“Surely the government would want to ensure that any major investment of public money achieved greatest impact on its central mission?

“For this reason, we do not believe that the current IRP should be the final word on rail infrastructure for the North. But, in the spirit of making progress, we wish to put a positive proposal to the government.”

The majors – covering Greater Manchester, Liverpool city region, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and North of Tyne – ask that government now commit to an ‘open, bi-lateral value for money assessment process’, involving northern transport body Transport for the North, to compare the original plan with the one ministers eventually chose.

“To make a meaningful comparison, it is essential that a full value for money assessment for both options is carried out against all five criteria, including leveling up impact.”

The IRP has been hailed by the government and many Tory MPs as a £96bn rail transformation focused on the North and the Midlands.

However critics note many of its upgrades had been announced previously, while plans for high speed rail – including Northern Powerhouse Rail, new links east-west – saw their budget halved and Bradford miss out on a connection entirely.

The eastern leg of High Speed ​​2 was axed and some areas, such as Hull, saw no real improvements at all.

Technical documents later showed that the version of NPR put forward by northern leaders had would have provided shorter journey times and more capacity on virtually every key route, but the government considered it unaffordable.

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But the papers also admitted that ‘given the early stage of the scheme development’, ‘full analysis of the wider economic impacts of the different options has not been completed’.

Greater Manchester Major Andy Burnham
Greater Manchester Major Andy Burnham

The mayors warn in their letter to ministers that the ‘magnitude’ of the IRP decision ‘cannot be overstated’.

“It will have a determinative impact on our economy and society for more than 100 years. If we didn’t press for the best possible solution, we would be letting down future generations of Northerners. We cannot but conclude the current plan puts unacceptable limits on our ambition for this wonderful part of the world.

“We know that Crossrail will soon open in London. We do not for one moment begrudge our capital city this new east-west line and the huge economic benefits it will bring. We simply ask for the same for the North of England.”

The call comes after last week’s long-awaited white paper on ‘levelling up’, published by Michael Gove’s department, admitted that too many previous attempts to boost local growth had not been based on a rigorous understanding of the evidence.

One of the paper’s central aims is to increase productivity everywhere by 2030, as well as ensuring ‘local public transport connectivity’ becomes ‘significantly closer to the standards of London’ .

However while one of the central aims of the IRP, published some weeks before that white paper, is to ‘level up’ the economy, in reality only an ‘initial’ assessment of NPR’s economic impact had actually been carried out, with no assessment of the new jobs, businesses or increased land values ​​the original plan could have brought.

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Michael Gove is today due to join mayors, council chiefs and business leaders at the Convention of the North conference in Liverpool, where he will provide the keynote address.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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