Why Leeds and Yorkshire now need HS2 more than ever - Judith Blake

AS a country we face arguably our greatest challenges since the Second World War – a second wave of Covid-19 while, at the same time, doing everything we can to safeguard jobs and our economy.
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake wants assurances about the eastern leg of HS2 from Leeds to Birmingham.Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake wants assurances about the eastern leg of HS2 from Leeds to Birmingham.
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake wants assurances about the eastern leg of HS2 from Leeds to Birmingham.

The Government had pledged to ‘level up’ the country prior to the outbreak, and while the immediate priority has understandably been how we cope with the pandemic, in the North we are also focused on our region’s long-term economic recovery.

For many years we have championed improved transport connectivity and the delivery of HS2’s eastern leg between my city of Leeds and Birmingham as the backbone to our economic prosperity – now more than ever.

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Despite the Prime Minister’s previous commitment to HS2, there is understandable anxiety about exactly when it will be delivered and in what form – hence why the HS2 East group has published a new report today entitled Mind the gap: The role of HS2’s Eastern Leg in bridging England’s east-west divide.

Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council and co-chair of the HS2 East group.Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council and co-chair of the HS2 East group.
Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council and co-chair of the HS2 East group.

The Government’s National Infrastructure Commission is expected to provide its Rail Needs Assessment before the end of this year, leading to an Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and the North.

Part of its remit will consider whether the eastern leg of HS2 can be delivered more efficiently and effectively.

The Government is also bringing forward legislation on HS2’s western leg. We remain concerned that there is no timetable for the same legislation for HS2’s eastern leg.

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The ‘levelling up’ conversation has been traditionally seen North versus South, yet this fails to acknowledge and address the existing disparity between the East of the country and the West.

Will high-speed rail be good for the North?Will high-speed rail be good for the North?
Will high-speed rail be good for the North?

The regions along the eastern leg of HS2 are home to nearly one quarter of the UK’s population, yet they are also home to more than 40 per cent of the country’s deprivation ‘cold spots’ – areas where people experience a poorer quality of life, without the same access to education and opportunities as other areas.

In the last five years alone, eastern leg regions have also received 20 per cent less spend on transport per head compared to the regions along the western leg, and 31 per cent less than the UK average.

In other words, a chronic lack of transport investment is holding our regions back from enjoying the same opportunities being afforded to other areas of the country. If the Government is serious about its ‘levelling up’ agenda, it is imperative that it addresses the needs of the whole of the North.

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Take the Leeds City Region for example, where we anticipate around 50,000 jobs could be created as a result of the eastern leg of HS2 and the wider regional connectivity including Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Yet it takes one minute longer to travel by train between Bradford and Leeds than it did in 1920. We remain reliant on Victorian-era infrastructure, and we are going backwards.

This illustrates why our region not only needs the eastern leg of HS2, but also Northern Powerhouse Rail, East Midlands Engine Hub, and the full Trans-Pennine Rail upgrade.

Together this package of investment will help bring about enormous transformational change that will benefit so many communities across our regions.

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Not just the major cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, and Derby.

I also want to be clear that we are not pitting ourselves against the west.

We believe that it is essential that the Government commits to delivering the eastern and western legs of HS2 in full and at the same time, along with Northern Powerhouse Rail – sparking the economic recovery and regeneration the North so urgently needs.

Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council and co-chair of the HS2 East group.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson