Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Northern Rail Betrayal

The government's decision to cut the promised Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 projects exposes the reality – the Tories don’t care about transport or the North.

The eastern leg of HS2, connecting Birmingham to Leeds, is set to be scrapped. Credit: Getty Images

Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) was to be part of this Conservative government’s grand campaign to ‘level up’ the nation. As part of a series of major upgrades to Northern England’s transport infrastructure, NPR was set to consist of a new high-speed line built running through the region east-to-west, connecting many areas that have had to rely on smaller and more limited rail lines. Along with HS2, NPR was meant to increase the rail capacity of the network across the North, improve journey times, and offer a more reliable and easy-to-use service.

But it was revealed by the i earlier this week that large parts of the NPR are set to be ‘downgraded’ in today’s announcement. Boris Johnson has today confirmed these changes in the Yorkshire Post, arguing that today’s Integrated Rail Plan—which also includes cutting the planned eastern leg of HS2, connecting Birmingham and Leeds—reflects the government’s commitment to delivering better transport for the North sooner rather than later.

The Leeds-Manchester (via Bradford) and Liverpool-Manchester sections of NPR will now be ‘upgraded’ along the existing route—rather than being served by the new lines promised —and the eastern section of HS2 between Birmingham and Leeds is set to be shelved completely. As Johnson’s op-ed shows, this decision is being justified on the basis of timing, but it’s really a cost-cutting exercise.

Britain is ‘more regionally divided than any comparable advanced economy’, and this divide is abundantly clear in the differences in public transport between regions. A quick glance at England’s rail map shows that the poor connectivity in the North is stark. The main rail lines run South-to-North, which means that while it might be relatively straightforward to get from Sheffield to London, for example—if also extortionately expensive—it’s much harder to travel a shorter distance east-to-west within the region.

People have to contend with multiple changes on trains, slow and busy services, and poor-quality services. One report by Arcadis, which ranked 100 of the world’s leading cities against three pillars of transport sustainability, found that Leeds had the fewest bus and metro stops per square kilometre, and that Manchester had some of the longest commuting times outside of London.

The differences in public transport quality are no accident—they’re in large part the result of unequal funding, allocated by a government with certain priorities. A decade of Conserative rule, including years of austerity, has hit the northern part of England the hardest, meaning that there’s been minimal investment in the North’s creaking transport infrastructure. With a South-centric approach to policymaking and funding allocation, governments have neglected the North for years, focusing instead on funding the capital and its wealthier surrounding areas.

Analysis from IPPR North shows that between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the North saw a £3.6 billion cut in public spending. London saw a relatively mere cut of £256 million. In 2016, the government was spending more money just on Crossrail in London than on all transport projects across the whole of Northern England. Two years later, things weren’t much better: IPPR North found that Londoners were receiving an annual average of £708 of transport spending per person, with only £289 spent for their Northern counterparts.

There has since been some noise around distributing funding for transport more equally across England, with the government announcing last month that there would be almost £7 billion available in the Budget to level up transport. But only around £1.5 billion of this funding is new money for regions outside of London; the rest was already allocated back in 2019. Today’s announcement does involve a £96 billion spending commitment for rail improvements in the North—as the government is keen to point out, the biggest ever public investment in rail—but even Northern Tories are making it clear that without the promised lines, this doesn’t go far enough. In fact, the changed plans are expected to save the government £14 billion.

In his 2019 manifesto, Boris Johnson committed to ‘levelling up’ the nation as one of his party’s top priorities. He dedicated a large part of his closing speech at the Conservative party conference in October to levelling up, too, calling it ‘the greatest project that any government can embark on’ which would ‘offer hope and opportunity to those areas that felt left behind.’

A key part of the levelling up agenda, however, was improving public transport in the North of England. NPR was this government’s opportunity to put its money where its mouth is and deliver something that would be beneficial for all—but yet again, promises have been broken, and normal people will suffer the worst as a result.

The downgrading of the Northern Powerhouse Rail and the cuts to HS2 are proof that Boris Johnson’s government isn’t concerned with delivering actual improvements in Northern England. It’s only interested in making empty promises. Connectivity and accessibility are essential to modernising the country, with wide-ranging benefits for local economies, but Northern England is never a priority—the Tories have proved their total disregard for the North once again.