The government’s plans for both HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse became a little clearer following a speech by Andrew Stephenson MP, Minister of State at the Department for Transport with special responsibility for HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Transpennine route upgrade.
Speaking to a Northern Powerhouse conference organised by New Statesman in Manchester, he described HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail as “the two biggest and most important rail projects for the north of England since the Victorian era”.
“This is an historic challenge,” he continued. “But it is also an unprecedented opportunity. To reverse decades of underinvestment in our northern railways, to fire up the northern economy, just as the original railways did and to create the capacity and the connections that I believe will redefine rail travel for northern passengers.”
The Minister then talked about the difficulties that the North faces.
“Like so many other northerners, I’ve been frustrated over the years as all the decisions seem to be taken away by civil servants and ministers in London, and we’ve had so little say on the decisions that affect us directly.
“But thankfully, that is now changing. In fact, this government has already devolved decision-making powers to metro Mayors representing almost half of the north of England.
“Devolution deals are delivering vital improvements already.” His examples included projects such as dualling the A6 in Greater Manchester, expanding Teesside International Airport and, building the largest train modernisation facility in the UK in Liverpool City Region – Alstom’s new facility at Widnes.
Andrew Stephenson also gave examples on the rail network – taking Northern back into public ownership, rolling out new fleets, withdrawing the unloved ‘Pacer’ trains and extending platforms across the Northern network – including on the Penistone Line and from Leeds towards the Calder Valley – so longer trains can run.
“But,” he continued, “to really address overcrowding on the network, and provide the connections required to stimulate renewal across the north, we need to build new capacity. New rail links north to south, and east to west.
“That’s why we’re going ahead with both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. These are not ‘either/or’ projects, they are both crucial to our future prosperity.
“HS2 is not simply a project that the North and Midlands benefit from. It is a project for these regions. Transforming journeys. Liberating new capacity on the existing railway. Connecting communities and unleashing their potential.
“The critics who say that HS2 will only benefit London are simply wrong. They ignore the voices in towns and cities across the north. They ignore the businesses and passengers who are crying out for investment and change. They ignore people in my own constituency of Pendle.
“I am proud to be a northern MP, tasked with ensuring these historic projects are delivered and run for the benefit of the people here. But that also means we have to have realistic, pragmatic and hard-nosed management of the costs, and a determination to unleash benefits that will revitalise the north.
“I’ve been a long-term supporter of HS2. But I’ve equally watched with deep concern as costs have risen and deadlines have been put back. Very simply, that can’t continue. We need to have a much better, improved approach from HS2 Ltd this time.
“The company has a new budget for Phase 1, and now must deliver it. No ifs, no buts.
“Community engagement must improve too. Too many times I’ve heard stories of unacceptable treatment of those impacted by this line. There will be disruption, we can’t avoid that. But we must manage this work professionally and efficiently, while always being sympathetic to those affected.
“And finally, we need tangible, stringent measures to ensure accountability. So everyone knows their responsibilities. With forensic scrutiny from a dedicated minister invested in its success.
“Now I know that HS2 is up to this challenge. It has some fine minds and excellent people working on the project. But it needs to regain the public’s trust.
“The entire energy of government must now be behind this project. Together with the Secretary of State, I’ll be hosting regular cross government meetings, as happened with the Olympics.
“We must get this project right.”
The Minister then went on to discuss what happens next, stating that the government will be bringing forward legislation for the high-speed line into Manchester as soon as practical.
“But before those designs are finalised,” he continued, “we’re going to be presenting one Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands. The plan will examine how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail can best work together, alongside wider investment in Transport for the North and the Midlands, to make sure people see the benefits of better services as quickly as possible.
“I am personally committed to ensuring the north and Midlands are fully engaged and consulted throughout the Integrated Rail Plan process. I will lead this programme, and will engage formally with leaders, TfN and Midlands Connect Boards, through a series of roundtables and visits, as I travel across the North and Midlands, and really get to grips with the priorities for these regions.
But let me be clear. By keeping a firm grip on the cost, by ensuring communities are treated with care and respect, and by making sure the voices of local people are taken into account throughout, we will succeed in doing something no government has done for well over a century, by building a modern railway network for the North and Midlands that will finally level up our country.”