The integrated rail review: Levelling up is easier said than done

By Scott Harker

On the same day that he said that he had “crashed the car” over the Owen Paterson lobbying row, the Prime Minister is now facing accusations that his ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has come off the rails following the announcement of the Government’s long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan.

Much of the detail of the Plan has been briefed to the press days before the Government’s official publication. As expected, the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, confirmed that the eastern leg of HS2, from Birmingham to Leeds, will be scrapped. The new high-speed line (currently under construction between London and Birmingham) will instead run as far as East Midlands Parkway in the east and to Manchester in the west (as planned).

The Plan does not however concern itself only with the controversial HS2 (which is, in essence, marmite on rails) but with the fate of Northern Powerhouse Rail, a long-running plan to deliver improved rail services to the north of England. Here, there is also evidence of a significant roll back in the Government’s ambitions. Original plans for the improvements included a new high speed rail line between Manchester and Leeds. Today’s announcement brought only promises of improvements to existing tracks and the electrification of the TransPennine line.

Predictably, this shift in approach has brought about a rebuke from Labour MPs and business groups who have accused the Government of “betrayal” and of abandoning its commitment to Levelling Up. Unite union even went as far as to call the Plan “industrial vandalism”.

There is much to say in the Government’s defence on this. To say that the original costs for HS2 had ballooned would be generous; from an original projection of £32.7 billion in 2012 to what was likely (before today’s announcement) to be over £100 billion by the time all phases were completed. The Government has argued that today’s announcements, which include a new high speed rail line between Warrington and Marsden, a new mass transit system for Leeds, and funds to introduce pay-as-you-go ticketing in the North and Midlands, will bring much the same benefits as the eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail but in a much shorter timeframe.

The Government’s messaging has placed great stress on the line that the new Plan is designed to “deliver sooner” and in a way that better integrates with the existing network. The plans, when considered in isolation, represent a significant investment in infrastructure outside of the London and the southeast of England.  The programme itself represents a £96 billion investment and will achieve significant reductions in travel times between Birmingham and Nottingham (over an hour) and Manchester and York (half an hour).

The devil is however in the Government’s past rhetoric rather than the detail. The revised plans represent a cut in the amount that the Government would have spent to complete the eastern leg of HS2. Alongside this, the Plan has linked Northern Powerhouse Rail to the cut of the HS2 link, what was once an ‘and’ has become an ‘or’.

The Government’s handling of the matter serves to highlight the challenges of realising ‘Levelling Up’ in practice. The Prime Minister’s optimism and love for great rhetoric has only served to raise expectations on the Government to deliver. In this case, a comprehensive set of measures (if delivered) have been overshadowed by the ghosts of past announcements that have proven too difficult to deliver.