Judith Cummins (Bradford South) (Lab) [V]
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?