Northern England’s transport system has suffered “long-term under-investment stretching back decades”, a government minister admitted on Monday but warned that a proposed £70bn improvement plan might not be fully funded.
Andrew Jones, a junior transport minister, said it would require “substantial investment . . . after such a long period of neglect and decline”. He said there was a strong case for greater investment in the North but warned that other projects were competing for taxpayer funding.
“Difficult decisions”, lay ahead he told an audience of political and business leaders from the North in Sheffield.
Leaders from the region are adamant that Northern Powerhouse Rail, a £39bn scheme to improve train connections between the five biggest northern cities, should happen before London’s proposed Crossrail 2.
Crossrail 2 is expected to cost at least £26bn and the government has asked the capital to fund half the cost. Its businesses and commuters provided £6bn, a third of the budget, for Crossrail 1, which should open this year, through business rates and fares.
However, Northern leaders believe their region is too poor to do the same.
Transport for the North, a statutory body that has drawn up the plan, points out that London is twice as rich. In 2017 Its 8.8m population had a £431bn output, compared with the £344bn produced by the North’s 15.5m people
Tim Wood, director of NPR, told the Sheffield event that it would not be asking for a business contribution. “We have had under-investment for decades. We cannot afford it in the North. We are not at that level of productivity.”
The full £70bn transport scheme, which involves new road links and improvements to existing rail lines, would help to boost the region’s economy by £100bn by 2050, TFN has calculated, and create 850,000 jobs.
Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool city region, said: “If there is only one cheque, it has to be NPR before Crossrail 2. It is about rebalancing the economy.”
However, some business leaders believe they may have to provide funds to avoid losing out to London. Richard Wright, policy director of the Sheffield chamber of commerce, said: “If London is offering to pay part of the costs, its scheme will get in front of ours in the queue. We as a business community have to get behind this — and that might include funding.”
Andy Koss, chief executive of Drax, the UK’s biggest power station, which is 18 miles south of York, said businesses would be open to paying for improvements that benefited them.
NPR’s board has approved the transport plan, which would halve journey times between the big northern cities, but it still has options that need to be narrowed down. For example, it calls for a new line between Leeds and Manchester through Bradford. But there could be a city centre station there or a cheaper out-of-town one.
TFN said the scheme required £1bn in this year’s government spending review and a further £4bn by 2024, when the first network improvements would start. The full scheme, including a new line from Liverpool to Warrington to connect with HS2, would open in 2039.
Mr Wood said NPR would link with the proposed £56bn HS2 north-south line. It would be “catastrophic” if HS2 north of Birmingham was cancelled, as some Tory backbenchers would like. Gary Neville, the former England footballer and property developer, wrote in the FT on Monday that it would be “impossible” to build NPR without HS2.
Mr Jones said reports that HS2 was under threat were “nonsense”.
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