Connectivity between northern English cities key to transforming region into "economic powerhouse", says chancellor

Out-Law News | 24 Jun 2014 | 3:29 pm | 3 min. read

The cities in the north of England have the potential to be a "powerhouse" of the country's economy with stronger transport, creative and research links and more power to make their own economic decisions, the chancellor of the exchequer said.

Specifically, George Osborne told an audience at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry that a new "high speed" rail connection between Manchester and Leeds could enable the collection of cities in the region to "take on the world". He has asked Sir David Higgins, chair of HS2 Ltd, to examine the case for a "third high speed railway for Britain" as part of his review of the second phase of the planned HS2 line.

Transport expert Patrick Twist of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that although it was a good idea to build stronger connections between the northern cities the details and costs of the proposals would need to be considered first.

"If the plan is to join up the north of England, it doesn't make sense to run a high speed line over the 35 miles from Manchester to Leeds," he said. "It is widely accepted that, in order to be economical, a high speed line should be at least 100 miles long: critics of HS2 have suggested that the distance between London and Birmingham is too little to make the first phase of the project worthwhile."

"According to some press reports, trains would run along the proposed new route at between 120 and 140 miles per hour, not much faster than existing trains between London and Scotland and far slower than the top speeds that trains on the existing HS1 and proposed HS2 lines are able to reach. In any event, if the plan is to improve rail infrastructure in the north of England it makes sense to do coast to coast, between Liverpool and Hull," he said.

However Higgins, who has already considered the regional implications of HS2 as part of a report into how the £50 billion project could be delivered earlier and for a lower cost, backed Osborne's announcements. The first phase of HS2, which would connect London and Birmingham, is due for completion in 2026 with a proposed second phase connecting the line to Manchester and Leeds due to follow by 2033.

"HS2 will be a strategic intervention in the life of the country, helping to re-balance our economy by relieving pressure in the south and better connecting the north, so it is much more than just a railway project," he said. "I am heartened by the energy and commitment with which parliament on all sides, the government and local authorities are seizing that opportunity to think more broadly and strategically about our future and how to realise the full potential that HS2 offers."

The "modern transport connections" envisaged by the chancellor would involve "a new high speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds" as well as upgrades to the road network. This route could be "based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure", Osborne said.

As well as promoting closer transport links between the cities, the chancellor said that his anticipated "Northern Powerhouse" could also be supported by backing its universities and creative clusters, and by "giving them the local power and control that a powerhouse economy needs".

"We've got an incredible opportunity to change the landscape of British science," Osborne said. "Today I call on the northern universities to rise to the challenge, and come up with radical, transformative long-term ideas for doing even more outstanding science in the north – and we will back you."

He also said that he wanted to "start the conversation" about the possibility of elected mayors for Greater Manchester or Leeds, with similar powers to those held by the mayor of London.

"The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough," he said. "The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that's not healthy for our economy."

"We need a northern powerhouse too. Not one city, but a collection of northern cities - sufficiently close to each other than combined they can take on the world. Able to provide jobs and opportunities and security to the many, many people who live here, and for whom this is all about," he said.