Grant Shapps has said promises the government made to the North on rail are “absolutely being fulfilled” despite the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds being scrapped and plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail being downgraded.
The transport secretary told Sky News that the government’s new £96bn Integrated Rail Plan for the North and the Midlands will deliver “faster” train journeys both earlier and cheaper than the original HS2 plans would have done.
But ministers have been widely criticised – including by individuals within the Conservative Party – for reneging on promises to upgrade links and instead proposing a scaled-back plan for the region.
One senior Tory criticised the government for “selling perpetual sunlight” and delivering “moonlight” for people in the north of England.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The north of England has been betrayed.”
And speaking to Sky News on Friday, shadow Northern Ireland secretary and MP for Sheffield Heeley said: “For this transport secretary to pretend to the people of the North that they are delivering what they promised is quite frankly nothing less than an insult to their intelligence.”
Addressing reporters on Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the announcement as “a much better plan” and said it was “total rubbish” to suggest he was breaking his former promises on rail connections.
But on Friday morning, the transport secretary denied plans for the eastern leg are being scrapped, telling Sky News that to say otherwise is “not accurate reporting”.
He claimed some complaints were from “largely Labour leaders who are completely misleading people” – despite several Tory MPs also expressing their disappointment with the plan.
Plans for HS2 were originally meant to connect London with the city centres of Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds.
The transport secretary told MPs the new £96bn rail plan will instead deliver three high-speed lines – HS2 Crewe to Manchester, Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, Warrington to Manchester – but not HS2 to Leeds or Northern Powerhouse Rail Leeds to Manchester.
“We will provide a journey time of 33 minutes from Leeds to Manchester, a significant, a very significant, improvement,” he told MPs, adding that the new project “will provide a better service than the outdated plan for HS2 a decade ago”.
But Conservative chairman of the Transport Select Committee Huw Merriman told the Commons the government’s new plan “compromises some fantastic projects that will slash journey times and better connect our great northern cities”.
Another Conservative MP, Craig Tracey, said it is “really difficult” to share the optimism in the announcement because it is “very disappointing to hear that HS2 will not be scrapped in full”.
Fellow Tory MP Robbie Moore pointed out that Bradford – the seventh-largest city in the UK – will still not have a mainline station under the new plans.
Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton in Yorkshire, Kevin Hollinrake, added that the original HS2 project could have been a great economic boost for Bradford.
But Mr Shapps said the “landmark” programme would still deliver and promised work will start “by Christmas”.
Mr Shapps said the government will “study how best to take HS2 trains into Leeds”.
Northern political leaders had warned the government will pass up huge economic benefits and betray promises to voters if, as expected, it cancelled the eastern leg of HS2 and a new Manchester-Leeds line.