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Trans-Pennine Railway

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times—both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the trans-Pennine route upgrade and Northern Powerhouse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am sorry that I am unable to attend this important debate in person, but I am self-isolating.

The trans-Pennine route upgrade and Northern Powerhouse Rail are two crucial transport infrastructure projects for the north of England. The latter is vital to the economic prosperity of Bradford and my constituents in Bradford South, as well as the wider region and the nation as a whole. I raise these matters today amid fears that that important high-speed rail project is set to be cut back, bypassing Bradford altogether, but the work for a diluted version of Northern Powerhouse Rail is being prepared by the Government under the guise of the trans-Pennine route upgrade and the smokescreen of the National Infrastructure Commission.

A report seen by the Yorkshire Post newspaper revealed the Government’s thinking. Documents for the trans-Pennine route upgrade setting out development and capacity improvements for NPR between Ravensbourne and Dewsbury are among the key elements of that scheme. I am not arguing against the trans-Pennine route upgrade—far from it: the modernisation of the existing cross-Pennine rail route is long overdue and desperately needed. It has been on and off the Government’s agenda—upgraded, downgraded, paused and rethought at regular intervals—and I am pleased that it might at last get the green light to go ahead. But that must be as well as, not instead of, Northern Powerhouse Rail.

I suppose I should not be surprised by the revealing of the Government’s intentions; after all, this has become an all too familiar pattern when it comes to investment in transport infrastructure spending outside London and the south-east. I am, however, outraged and, frankly, incredulous—outraged that yet again the Government plan to short-change the north and think they can get away with it, and incredulous at such short-sightedness.

The transport infrastructure of the north has endured decades of under-investment and generations of unfulfilled economic opportunity as a consequence, and yet the potential of the north of England to deliver not just for itself but to provide a national uplift is unparalleled. The north is home to seven of the UK’s 20 largest cities, and Bradford is one of them. Despite the short distances between them, the economic interaction of those cities has been restricted. With £343 billion in economic output, eight of the UK’s top research institutions and 27 universities, the potential of the north is right there for all to see.

Time and again in this House I have raised the north-south economic imbalance in our country. Time and again I have had acknowledgment of the problems that Bradford and the north face. I have had promises, but no action. Time and again, I have asked Ministers to confirm that the Northern Powerhouse Rail would get the go-ahead and that it would include Bradford, not pass it by. Time and again Ministers have responded with warm words, but nothing concrete. Let us have no more shallow promises.

We need action more than ever before. Instead of the commitment required to address the inequality at hand and reap the benefits of investment to change it, we have seen prevarication, fudge and delay. Earlier this year, the Department for Transport told Transport for the North that it must delay submission of its strategic outline case for Northern Powerhouse Rail until after the Government had published their integrated rail plan. This kicking of the can down the road, coming after the National Infrastructure Commission raised questions about what can and cannot be afforded in the current national rail budget, does little to engender either confidence or trust. First expected by the end of 2020, the integrated rail plan remains a mystery.

As details of the DfT’s thinking about the trans-Pennine route upgrade now emerge, there is clear cause for concern that the Government are contemplating not a levelling up, but a levelling down of rail infrastructure investment in the north. Today, we must have the truth about the Government’s obligation to tackle the imbalance of this nation’s north-south economic inequality and their commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, because the two are inextricably linked.

Northern Powerhouse Rail is the very essence of levelling up. It is not about trains: it is about people. It is about unlocking potential, attracting investment and creating jobs. It is a catalyst for a regional and national economic boost: integration, rather than fragmentation, of the great cities and economic powerhouses of the north. To put it bluntly, upgrading existing lines will not fulfil the manifesto promises that the Government made or provide the transformational improvement that the north needs and which our nation needs the north to make, too.

Transport for the North, England’s first sub-national transport body, said that its preferred Northern Powerhouse Rail network will

“deliver close to £5bn in economic benefit, by helping the North operate as a single economic unit, and £14.4bn in gross value added (GVA) by 2060. It will create a net gain of 74,000 new jobs in the North, and over 57,000 new jobs across the UK as a whole.”

The preferred route for Northern Powerhouse Rail—the one that delivers the greatest economic boost to the region, as set out by Transport for the North with the backing of northern leaders and both the West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire metro Mayors—includes a city centre stop in Bradford, which is currently the largest UK city without a main line station. Bradford is the UK’s youngest city, and its fifth biggest. It is home to more than half a million people and 17,000 businesses, and has £10.5 billion in its economy. It was PwC’s most improved city in 2019, and was listed among The Sunday Times’s best places to do business. It has a strong manufacturing base, especially in my constituency of Bradford South. It has high business start-up rates, and it is among the UK’s top exporters. However, its capacity for growth is constrained by poor connectivity. Analysis by Transport for the North of a Bradford city centre stop on Northern Powerhouse Rail points to additional gross value added across the Bradford district of £2.9 billion per year in today’s money by 2060. That is equivalent to increasing the size of the local economy by a third.

The reduction in journey times between Bradford and key cities in the north and the UK would be transformational, enabling a journey from Bradford to Leeds to take seven minutes. Currently, that journey takes 20 minutes, between two cities that are about eight miles apart as the crow flies. It would be possible to get from Bradford to Manchester in 22 minutes—it currently takes an hour—and from Bradford to Liverpool in 50 minutes; it currently takes two hours.

Across the wider regions, the proposal would put around 10 million people and more than a quarter of a million businesses within 90 minutes of four or more northern cities. Northern Powerhouse Rail will also support carbon-free and sustainable travel, contributing to the net zero carbon goals of not just northern cities, but the whole of the UK. One of the largest city-to-city journey to work flows in the country is between Bradford and Leeds, mostly by car. At scale, Northern Powerhouse Rail supports a 400% increase in rail travel and takes 64,000 car trips per day off the road.

Done properly, Northern Powerhouse Rail will create an integrated urban area larger than Birmingham, linking Bradford and Leeds to form a coherent economic unit, with a labour market of more than 1.3 million people, and more than 600,000 jobs. Done poorly and half-heartedly or—as increasingly seems to be the Government’s aim—on the cheap, with the very least they can get away with, it would fail to support the economic and societal advances we require.

Northern Powerhouse Rail is a game-changer for the north and Bradford: a key part of rebalancing the economy and the country. A watered-down version would expose the reality of the Government’s real commitment to levelling up. Put simply, it is not acceptable. In west Yorkshire on Monday, when asked about Northern Powerhouse Rail, the Prime Minister said that he could not give

“chapter and verse on exactly where the stops are going to be”.

That response from a Prime Minister who famously does not do detail, though he does do populism, suggests that a decision has been reached and it is not going to be popular. The Prime Minister told the reporter that he would have to get back to her. I ask the Minister, who has responsibility for Northern Powerhouse Rail and the trans-Pennine route upgrade, to give our Parliament today the detail that the Prime Minister this week committed to provide to a journalist. It is time for the Government to level with the people and the cities of the north. They are either going to deliver in full on Northern Powerhouse Rail or they are not. Which is it to be, Minister?

I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for leading this important debate. She set the scene very well. I, too, was concerned when I read newspaper reports about the potential downgrade—that is, an upgrade of the trans-Pennine route as it exists rather than a new route. The hon. Lady quoted part of the newspaper interview with the Prime Minister; he also said that there is definitely a commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail and a huge investment in railways in the north, so I was more reassured.

It is quite understandable that the Treasury should look carefully at where we spend taxpayers’ money. On the face of it, why do we need two railways running across the Pennines? It is a fair question to ask. Having spoken to the Chancellor before he took that role, I know he was always committed to east-west rail links across the north. I do not think for a minute that Northern Powerhouse Rail is under threat. The Minister will no doubt reflect on that when he makes his comments.

The key is the agglomeration effect, as economists call it. It is a critical mass, which is what we need. It brings 10 million people together, in exactly the way that London has 10 million people together who are highly connected. It shows the economic opportunity based on that. As the hon. Lady set out, cities such as Bradford would be left behind without it. Bradford cannot be connected into the rest of the north without Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Key to it are all those young IT-savvy people connected so easily to places such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, York and many others. That makes perfect sense and it is vital we get that agglomeration effect. I know Bradford quite well, and its city centre is in desperate need of investment. A shiny brand new station in the middle of Bradford would attract lots of other private sector investment, which is critical. We have seen the investment at King’s Cross and St Pancras and all the investment that came off the back of that. That is what would happen to Bradford. That is critical investment, and not just for Bradford—there are similar arguments for Hull, Liverpool, York, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds. This is an important and welcome debate, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say from his perspective. I know he is a massive champion of investment in rail in the north.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing this important debate. I am sure we all agree that investing in rail across the north of England and improving connectivity between all communities is vital.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to levelling up the north of England as we build back better from the pandemic, delivering real, tangible improvements for people across the region. That is one of the Government’s top priorities. The Government are committed to enabling the north to reap the benefits of record levels of investment in our rail services. The trans-Pennine route upgrade and Northern Powerhouse Rail are just two of many infrastructure projects that will better connect communities across the north of England. The integrated rail plan will soon outline exactly how these major rail projects, alongside HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers need and deserve.

However, we are not waiting for the integrated rail plan to get on with investing in, and delivering significant improvements to, transport across the north of England. Building on our £29 billion investment in northern transport since 2010, we recently announced £15 million for two new stations outside Leeds, at White Rose and Thorpe Park, providing a springboard for regeneration, housing growth and economic activity and jobs in the surrounding area. We announced a further £317 million of funding for the trans-Pennine route upgrade, which I will talk more about shortly, and more than £1.2 billion from the transforming cities fund to improve connectivity across the north. In addition, we are investing £137 million in the Hope Valley line to improve capacity and connectivity between Manchester and Sheffield, and £34 million has been pledged to rapidly progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line, which closed to passengers in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts.

Transforming railways in the north will significantly impact national infrastructure by releasing capacity, improving journey times and reducing our carbon footprint. The trans-Pennine route upgrade is a multi-billion pound programme and is expected to be the largest investment in our existing rail network over the next five years. It aims to tackle the problems that rail passengers experience today by delivering a step change in the performance and reliability of this key east-west rail artery, enhancing journeys for passengers and providing opportunities for the growing population up until the 2040s. Funding of £589 million was announced in July 2020, enabling design and development work to continue and delivering extensive reliability, capacity and journey time improvements between Manchester and York via Huddersfield and Leeds.

An extra £317 million investment into the programme was announced in May. The bulk of this funding will commence early works, including electrification and upgrades between York and Church Fenton, one of the busiest stretches of track in the north of England, as part of delivering a more reliable and resilient railway for passengers. This funding, which has already been committed, will see the programme progress rapidly into the next phase, with early benefits delivered for passengers as early as 2025. The Department continues to work through the design and development phases of the programme. A further update to the business case, to make recommendations for the next stage of works, is due in the coming months.

I turn to the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, otherwise known as HS3, and to the recent media reports cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and the hon. Member for Bradford South, which inaccurately speculated about the Government’s commitment to NPR and that money has been reappropriated from the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme to finance HS2. I am pleased to say that those claims are categorically untrue. The Government remain absolutely committed to the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, which represents a further opportunity to invest in northern communities, to level up the economy, and most importantly, to improve connectivity and reliability between key northern hubs, allowing the north to reach its full strategic and economic potential both at home and abroad.

The integrated rail plan will outline the investment blueprint and the delivery profile for a host of major rail projects in the midlands and the north over subsequent decades, including the NPR programme, the trans-Pennine route upgrade and HS2 phase 2b. Once it has been published, the Department for Transport will work closely with Transport for the North to finalise a strategic outline case for the NPR programme that is consistent with the policy and funding framework established by the integrated rail plan, which will allow more rapid alignment around single-route options for NPR and an accelerated delivery timetable that will allow us to get spades in the ground and realise benefits for communities across the north of England sooner than was previously seen as possible.

As for the content of the integrated rail plan and the recommended way forward for the NPR programme, final decisions are yet to be made and Ministers continue to look very closely at the evidence, including that provided by Transport for the North and leaders from the north and midlands. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met northern leaders—including those from Leeds, Bradford and Manchester—and leaders from the midlands several times this year to discuss their priorities for investment in rail infrastructure and in the integrated rail plan.

I myself have met Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe on three occasions this year and I know that my officials have had much engagement with her officers in both Bradford Council and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. I am grateful for their ongoing constructive engagement. We have had productive discussions on understanding the evidence base that is being presented.

That applies to all Northern Powerhouse Rail corridors, including Bradford and the Manchester-to-Leeds NPR corridor. The Government recognise the importance of improving rail connectivity to Bradford—for the local community, for passengers and for the regeneration opportunities that it could bring.

On that point, I really emphasise my support for having a station stop in Bradford, because of the absolute benefits it would have for my constituency of Keighley; as the MP for a neighbouring constituency, the Minister will be well aware of those. However, this process is not just about things such as the NPR; it is also about the Skipton-to-Colne railway line, which he will also be very familiar with, and opening up the links between the east and west.

Wonderful—I welcome the contribution from my constituency neighbour, who represents Keighley. I am happy to say that I completely agree with him about the importance of Bradford, not only to the whole north of England but as an integral part of our rail network. I will not comment on the Skipton-to-Colne line; I have a vested interest, because it goes through my constituency. I will leave that one there, but he makes a very strong case for the reopening of that railway line.

We would all agree that Bradford is a vibrant city with plenty to contribute to the wider development of the north. Combining the local economies of Manchester and Leeds, it has an important role to play in creating an economic powerhouse to rival anywhere else in the country.

There remain a range of options that are under robust evaluation as part of NPR. That is why, when the Prime Minister visited west Yorkshire earlier this week, as the hon. Member for Bradford South mentioned, he did not talk about specifics. But he did say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned,

“There is definitely a commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a huge investment in railways in the North.”

That speaks very clearly to the Government’s commitment.

Ensuring that investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail benefits the widest possible range of places is the responsibility of Ministers; we take it very seriously, which will be reflected in our decision making. As I have mentioned previously, the integrated rail plan will set out how major projects across the north and the midlands will be sequenced and delivered, and it is the Government’s ambition that the benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 phase 2b are delivered to communities and passengers in the north more quickly.

I am aware that hon. Members and local leaders from across the midlands and the north are eagerly awaiting the publication of the integrated rail plan. Let me assure my hon. Friends that we are making good progress and intend to publish it soon.

I, too, am eagerly awaiting the integrated railway plan. The Minister said it will be published “soon”, but could he be more specific?

As somebody who served in the Government Whips’ Office for two years, I think I will stick with the language of “soon”. However, it is definitely our commitment to have the integrated rail plan published.

The one thing I would say, though, from having had conversations with many leaders across the north of England, is that many of them have said that they would rather we get the right answers and the right solutions rather than rushing things. This plan will set an investment framework for decades, so we have to get it right— and if that requires a little more to-ing and fro-ing and a little more negotiation, I think that is a price worth paying. Nevertheless, we are very keen make the announcement soon.

As I say, it is important that we continue the negotiations and carry on reflecting on all the evidence. We must also consider what the National Infrastructure Commission said in the “Rail Needs assessment for the Midlands and the North”, the advice from Transport for the North, the views of northern and midlands leaders and the Government’s own analysis before making any final decisions.

Growing economies and levelling up the north and the midlands are at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. That is why I am also happy to confirm that Ministers from both the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury have been closely involved in drawing up the integrated rail plan. This process is not just about building railways but about taking a holistic view of how to capitalise on our investment, and how to help boost regional economies.

I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for Bradford South and my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton and for Keighley (Robbie Moore) of the Government’s commitment to both Northern Powerhouse Rail and the trans-Pennine route upgrade, and to delivering the benefits of these transformational rail investments to passengers and communities in the north more quickly. Decisions on these schemes will be set out in the integrated rail plan, which we intend to publish soon, but in the meantime we are already getting on with levelling up the country and delivering investment and improvements to transport across the north of England.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.