New HS2 study urges government to defer eastern leg to Leeds

The eastern leg of the HS2 high-speed network should be deferred in favour of developing regional rail links across the north, according to a report by the UK government advisers on infrastructure.

The report was met with alarm by transport authorities in the north and Midlands, who have demanded HS2 be built in full and are concerned that promises to the regions may be downgraded.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) said that the government should prioritise regional connections, including upgrading links between Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield and in the east Midlands, rather than completing the promised high-speed rail network link to London.

The commission said such upgrades would deliver higher local economic benefits than building HS2’s eastern leg now with the £86bn available, or even if the government added 50% to that figure.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the commission, said: “Major rail schemes will be an important component in levelling up the country’s economic geography, but we should ensure public money is carefully spent where it can make the most difference.

“The number and scale of rail schemes currently being proposed for the north and Midlands mean that some form of prioritisation will be necessary, and we think there are ways of bringing forward benefits for communities and businesses while keeping options open for additional investments if the circumstances are right.”

The report said that better regional, east-to-west rail links would provide the biggest potential improvements in productivity and connectivity for several key cities and also to a range of smaller towns. It would also improve the journeys that people are most likely to take – namely into cities from the surrounding area, rather than long-distance routes.

The commission said its advice did not rule out further options to complete the eastern leg. The exact route is under review since Boris Johnson’s government gave the go-ahead to the full HS2 scheme in February this year, but the leg would run from Birmingham to Leeds, via Toton, in Nottinghamshire – serving Nottingham and Derby – and a link to Sheffield.

The report was met with dismay in the Midlands and north, where transport planners have long argued HS2 is needed to support development.

Barry White, chief executive at Transport for the North, said that while the NIC had recognised the “desperate need to better connect the north’s towns and cities”, its proposals fell short. He said: “That such investment in our rail network would also come at the expense of HS2’s long-awaited arrival to Yorkshire is a bitter blow and one we oppose. The NIC was tasked with integrating these projects – not pitching them against each other.

“Constraining spending and ambition will lead to cut-price versions of the current plans and promised projects simply not being delivered.”

Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect, said the options put forward in the report were “very concerning”, adding: “Sacrificing parts of the high-speed network now would short-change millions of people across the Midlands … HS2 must be delivered in its entirety. To stall, scale down or delay now will cause irreparable economic damage to communities across the region.”

Lilian Greenwood, MP for Nottingham South and former chair of the transport select committee, said: “This report is an insult to the people of the east Midlands, whose interests have once again been cast aside by Westminster.”

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon said: “If the government is serious about improving British infrastructure, supporting jobs and improving connectivity in the north it cannot now row back from building HS2 in its entirety. Recent cuts to Network Rail and failures to deliver pledged investment in the north and Midlands show the government is not keeping its promises.”

However, Lord Tony Berkeley, the vice-chairman of the Oakervee review into HS2, said the report was sensible and pragmatic and welcomed it as “the first report from a government agency that challenges the runaway costs of HS2”.

He said: “I do urge political leaders in the north to welcome this realistic report into the real economic and transport needs of their regions.”