Boris Johnson: Building HS2 all the way to Leeds 'absolutely' remains the Government's ambition

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Boris Johnson has said the Government’s “ambition” to build the eastern leg of HS2 up to Leeds “remains absolutely unchanged” after Government advisers recommended scrapping the scheme.

A report from the National Infrastructure Commission released yesterday recommended concentrating on regional links with the budget available for rail projects in the North and the Midlands, putting at risk the section of HS2 which was planned to run between the West Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds.

But speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson denied that was what the report had concluded.

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Nottingham North Labour MP Alex Norris said: “HS2 in full will transform the East Midlands and the North, reversing a 40-year trend of losing skilled work.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, London. Photo: PAPrime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, London. Photo: PA
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, London. Photo: PA

“In February the Prime Minister announced it would be built in full, yesterday’s National Infrastructure Commission review reduces the eastern leg to a small line between Birmingham and the disliked station at East Midlands Parkway which won’t deliver the connectivity the Midlands and the North need – nor the economic uplift.”

Responding to Mr Norris’s call for the Prime Minister to “reaffirm his commitment”, Mr Johnson replied: “(Mr Norris) is quite wrong.

“What the NIC is saying is that there are other things we can do as well including massively improving the midlands mainline and I think everybody will want to do that.

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“But the ambition to do the eastern leg, as I’ve said in the House before, remains absolutely unchanged.”

During a Westminster briefing this afternoon, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman did not answer when asked if Mr Johnson had read the report.

But he said: “I would point back to what the Prime Minister said on HS2 previously.”

And he added: “He's been clear it is the backbone of our transport network.”

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The NIC report prompted furious backlash from business leaders and local politicians yesterday who said to cancel the Eastern leg would be a “bitter blow”.

The commission recommended that investment should be focused on boosting mainline services across the North and the Midlands.

Its Rail Needs Assessment stated it would be “potentially cheaper and faster” to deliver improvements to regional journeys through a combination of new lines and upgrades, rather than Phase 2b of HS2.

Regional projects include Northern Powerhouse Rail between Liverpool and Hull, and the Midlands Engine.

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The NIC report suggested that building of the first section of HS2’s eastern leg from Birmingham to Nottingham could be accelerated, and did not call for extension of the line to Leeds to be ruled out.

But Sir John Armitt, who chairs the NIC, said: “Major rail schemes will be an important component in levelling up the country’s economic geography, but we should ensure public money is carefully spent where it can make the most difference.

“The number and scale of rail schemes currently being proposed for the North and Midlands mean that some form of prioritisation will be necessary, and we think there are ways of bringing forward benefits for communities and businesses while keeping options open for additional investments, if the circumstances are right.

“Our independent analysis offers Government various ways of targeting spending depending on the precise economic and social outcomes it wants to achieve.”

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On the development of the full eastern leg, he said there is “no reason why it shouldn’t get built”, but improving regional links would get “more benefits into the regions, more quickly”.

Maria Machancoses, director of regional transport lobby group Midlands Connect, described the report as “very concerning”.

She said: “Sacrificing parts of the high-speed network now would short change millions of people across the Midlands and undermine our efforts to deliver a transport network fit for the 21st century.

“HS2 must be delivered in its entirety, including its eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds, alongside Midlands Engine Rail.

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“To stall, scale down or delay now will cause irreparable economic damage to communities across the region.”

Ms Machancoses added: “It’s important that Government follows the evidence and advice of its industry experts and rejects calls to alter HS2’s route or remit.”

Barry White, chief executive at Transport for the North – a cross-party group of northern leaders, said it would be a “bitter blow” if investment in regional services came at the expensive of HS2’s arrival in Yorkshire.

He continued: “The NIC was tasked with integrating these projects – not pitching them against each other.”

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Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon commented: “If the Government is serious about improving British infrastructure, supporting jobs and improving connectivity in the North, it cannot now row back from building HS2 in its entirety.

“Recent cuts to Network Rail and failures to deliver pledged investment in the North and Midlands show the Government is not keeping its promises.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We welcome the NIC’s Rail Needs Assessment report published today, which suggests how we can improve our future rail network in the North and Midlands and ensure projects like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers deserve.

“It is necessary that we take the time to consider these recommendations in full, and we therefore expect to publish the Integrated Rail Plan in early 2021.”

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