'Cutting the eastern leg out of HS2 would have substantial long term consequences for Sheffield'

Back in August, rumours started to emerge, not least from the Financial Times, that the eastern leg of the controversial HS2 investment was unlikely to go ahead.

By Lord David Blunkett
Thursday, 9th September 2021, 12:00 am

To many of us, this was not a surprise. It had been clear from the equivocation of government ministers in the Commons and in the Lords’ that if anything of this scheme was going to be sacrificed, it was going to be the leg through the East Midlands, South Yorkshire and on to the North-East.

Together with the former Transport Secretary, Lord Andrew Adonis, I moved an amendment in the Lords that would have required the government to commit to the Eastern leg before extending the Birmingham to Manchester link to Crewe and beyond.

Unfortunately, this amendment was narrowly defeated. Partly because - let's be frank about it - there aren't many members of the House of Lords this side of the Pennines! But it was also because mobilising elected mayors, leaders of councils and others across the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the North proved to be incredibly difficult. This, in part, was understandable. Some felt that they wanted to give the government the benefit of the doubt, and that rocking the boat at that stage would be counter-productive.

The HS2 consultation event.

Weasel words satisfied some that the government really would honour its original commitment and ensure that connectivity to the North meant “the North” and not just the North-West! All the material put out (including lobbying MPs and Peers from the HS2 operation) talked about connectivity to, and linking, the North of England – but in all their examples it was Manchester, and not Sheffield and Leeds, that featured.

There has also been the little matter of how the commitment to bring HS2 to Leeds might be achieved without the investment, and therefore jobs and economic activity which was the raison d'être of HS2 in the first place – by bringing the line through South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and, from Leeds, the linkage to Durham and Newcastle. Readers might recall that this was all part of what the Boris Johnson described as “levelling up".

You don’t have to be a genius to see how the commitment to bring HS2 to Leeds could be achieved without this eastern leg.

Fulfilling the commitment to bring HS2 to Yorkshire (by just bringing it to Leeds) has been on the cards all along. It just hasn't been announced yet and, therefore, presented for scrutiny and criticism – but the elected Mayor for West Yorkshire, and the leadership of councils to the North of us, are hardly going to condemn something that brings high-speed and economic investment and growth into their area. It's the oldest trick in the world. “Divide and rule", give something to some, and hope that the rest will, in due time, be acquiescent.

The argument goes something like this. By linking Manchester and Leeds to HS2 and fulfilling a commitment to Trans Pennine investment at the same time, it is possible to do something faster than the potential 2035 - 2040 completion date for the full version of HS2.

So, the presentation can be very simple. You weren't really going to get this for some time, so we might do something to improve one or two of the journey times for you on traditional tracks, which will help you almost immediately – or at least by 2030.

The fact that the substantial sum of money (up to £40 billion over the next 15 years) will no longer be invested east of the Pennines, can thereby be obfuscated. To put it bluntly, you can con some of the people all of the time, even if you can't con all of them, all of the time!

There is no doubt that the substantial amounts of money we are talking about will not be made available for other kinds of investment.

We will have simply lost it. Not solely the speeding up of rail journeys, which has always been argued as being problematic, but the major job creation and facilitation - which was intended to open up other opportunities for manufacturing and service jobs, and yes, economic growth.

The failure to invest in the east of the Pennines has substantial long-term consequences. Investors invest in success. Where economic activity is booming, that's where the money and innovation goes.

So, if the rumours are right, and there's no reason to believe for a moment that they are not, then we will have the enormous skewing of long-term growth, productivity and prosperity into the North-West of England, London and the South-East and the West Midlands. The “Northern Powerhouse" will be Greater Manchester and beyond, and the poor relation, despite large numbers of voters putting in Conservative MPs for the first time, will be Yorkshire and the areas to the immediate south and north.

The answer? Well, there's no point in whingeing. I think we will have to presume that one hoodwink requires us to get real.

We must join up with those who are prepared to collaborate – because only by cooperating together can it work – and transform our education services, place emphasis on research and development from our great universities, attract innovators and entrepreneurs from wherever we can, and above all, build from the bottom.

When you look reality in the eye, you sometimes come to the right conclusions. On this occasion, the conclusion surely must be that we get off our backsides and do it ourselves.