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Osborne HS3 idea yet to reach drawing board
From the Financial Times of Mon, 23 Jun 2014 19:07:11 GMT
George Osborne, U.K. chancellor of the exchequer, speaks during an interview during a Group-of-20 (G-20) Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Sydney, Australia, on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. Osborne said the nation is in "active" discussions with China to establish a yuan clearing bank in London and this should be done in "fairly short order." Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** George Osborne©Bloomberg

Plans for a high-speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds are still embryonic: officials at the transport department were told about George Osborne’s announcement just before the weekend.

The chancellor of the exchequer, speaking at an event in Manchester on Monday, admitted that he had no specific plan but rather wanted to “start a conversation” about what has been dubbed “HS3”.

Mr Osborne implied the line could involve a big upgrade to the existing trans-Pennine route between the two cities; then again, it could involve a new line. More details are unlikely to be forthcoming this close to a general election.

But even as a sketchy concept, the vision to create a “supercity” comprising Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds won widespread support on Monday. Together they have a population of 9m, a £154bn economy and almost 3m jobs.

The ancient rivalries between northern cities have largely subsided. The Wars of the Roses, which saw the house of Lancaster fight York for the crown from 1455-85, are now confined to the cricket and football pitch.

Keith Wakefield, Labour leader of Leeds city council, who was not invited to Mr Osborne’s speech, said it was “very political”. Cllr Wakefield said Leeds was being punished for rejecting the concept of an elected mayor in a 2012 referendum, along with nine other cities.

But Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester city council, denied it was a “Manchester-centric” plan. “There is a level of collaboration between northern cities that has never been seen before,” he said. “It will be a challenge to move to the next level. But it is a challenge to central government as well.”

Manchester and Leeds are currently linked by a leisurely rail service taking nearly 50 minutes.

Offering a much swifter link between the two was a testament to Mr Osborne’s “vision and optimism”, said the Institute of Directors.

Adam Marshall, executive director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), was more measured in his praise. “Businesses like this sort of ambitious thinking, but will be far more impressed if the government’s existing list of infrastructure commitments are delivered.”

The Treasury has underfunded transport in the north: a recent IPPR report suggested that spending on big transport projects was £2,731 per head in London against £134 per head in the north-west. The Conservatives and Lib Dems are keen to rebut accusations that they have neglected the region.

“This is more about northern votes than northern growth,” said Lord Prescott, the former Labour deputy prime minister.

Mr Osborne – who also voiced support for elected city mayors – may be seeking to pre-empt a report next week by Lord Adonis, the former transport secretary, proposing powers for “city regions”.

The Labour peer told the FT that the coalition had still not published detailed plans for the HS2 route from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds. “There is no timescale for when they are taking HS2 to the north, what does that tell you about the status of this new plan?” he said.

The government disputes that it has ignored the region: the coalition has agreed to fund the £600m Northern Hub of rail improvements around Manchester, which includes electrifying the Transpennine line from Liverpool to Selby.

Yet ministers did in 2011 scrap the “Northern Way” initiative, designed to improve transport connections in the region.

Despite the economic case for improving links between northern cities, HS3 would still need to compete for funds against other capital-intensive schemes such as the proposed “Crossrail 2”, designed to relieve congested rail lines between north and south London.

Katja Hall, deputy director-general at the CBI business group, said taxpayers would need to see more details before deciding if it was relatively “good value for money”.

Mr Osborne suggested the project could come in at about £6bn-£7bn if priced at the same cost per mile as HS2, but was likely to work out cheaper because it could use existing rail corridors.

But Christian Wolmar, the transport commentator seeking the Labour candidacy for the 2016 London mayoral election, questioned Mr Osborne’s assertion that it would be possible to run high-speed trains on the existing Manchester-Leeds rail line, even after an expensive upgrade. “It would be extremely tricky. The chancellor wants to have his cake and eat it, but in reality I think this would require a new dedicated line, which would cost more than £7bn.”

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