Manchester may get high-speed rail before Leeds, HS2 minister suggests | UK news

Manchester may get high-speed rail before Leeds, the new minister for HS2 has suggested.

In his first speech in the job, Andrew Stephenson said the next step for government was to “bring forward legislation to bring high-speed rail into Manchester as soon as practical”. There was no mention of Leeds as he addressed the New Statesman’s northern powerhouse-themed conference in Manchester.

Until now, the two northern spurs of HS2 – from Birmingham up to Manchester and Leeds – had been treated as one project, called phase 2b.

The plan now is to split those two spurs into two stages, with Manchester going first, a transport department press officer confirmed. This is to integrate it with Northern Powerhouse Rail, the new east-west line across the Pennines, which includes 50 miles of HS2 track, including a tunnel from Manchester airport to Manchester Piccadilly.

Stephenson, a Mancunian former insurance broker who has represented Pendle in east Lancashire since 2010, said he was “thrilled” to become the first minister for “HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Transpennine route upgrade”.

But he said he knew much work would need to be done to get the public on side with HS2 in particular, due to spiralling costs and fears about environmental degradation.

A YouGov poll last month found the public was opposed to HS2, by 39% to 34%. London was the only region where a majority supported the project, the poll suggested, with 43% in favour and 34% against.

“HS2 is not simply a project that the north and Midlands benefit from. It is a project for the north and Midlands,” Stephenson said in his speech. “The critics who say that HS2 will only benefit London are simply wrong. They ignore the voices in towns and cities across the north, all the businesses and passengers who are crying out for investment and change. They ignore people in my own constituency of Pendle.”

He insisted there must be a “realistic, pragmatic and hard-nosed management of costs” to to convince people about the scheme, and improved public engagement.

As of March 2019, £7.4bn had been spent. Much of the work done so far has been on paper: detailed engineering designs of the length of the route, years of public consultation, and legislation. Officially launched by Labour in 2009, HS2 was reviewed and tweaked by the coalition government and green-lighted in 2012.

So far money has been spent on detailed engineering designs of the length of the route, years of public consultation, and legislation. Buying land along the route, either for direct demolition or to relieve blighted homeowners, has accounted for a large total of the £7.4bn invested to date.

In terms of physical activity, so-called preparatory works have started, although no track or tunnel has yet been built. At the southern end, HS2 has demolished housing estates, parks and office blocks around Euston, and started moving tens of thousands of skeletons out of the way.

Train depots and industrial estates have been razed to build another HS2 station at Old Oak Common, while brownfield sites in Birmingham have been levelled for the Curzon Street station and approach. According to HS2, work has taken place at 250 sites, including archaeological digs and tree planting as well as construction.

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

He said: “Too many times I have heard stories of unacceptable treatment of those impacted by this line. There will be disruption. We can’t deny that. But we must manage this work efficiently and effectively while always being sympathetic to those affected.”

He added: “It needs to regain the public’s trust. The entire energy of government must now be behind this project. Together with the secretary of state, I will be holding regular cross-government meetings, as happened with the Olympics. We must get this project right. In terms of the next steps, we will be bringing forward legislation for the high-speed rail into Manchester as soon as is practical.

“But before those designs are finalised, we are going to be presenting one integrated rail plan for the north and Midlands. It will examine how northern powerhouse rail and HS2 can best work together.”

Work is due to start building the London to Birmingham leg of HS2 in April. Earlier this month the government said it would “revive the legislation to deliver phase 2a (connecting Birmingham to Crewe) as soon as possible so that preparation works can move forward”.

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