George Osborne will show on Monday that he remains unbowed by the controversy over the first high-speed rail line north of London when he calls for another to be built between Manchester and Leeds to create a “northern powerhouse”.
In an attempt to shore up Tory support in the north of England, where the party lacks councillors in most of the main cities, the chancellor will use a speech in Manchester to say that the new high-speed line would allow the north to “take on the world”.
Osborne, a north-west MP, will call for Britain’s third high-speed rail line to link Manchester and Leeds as part of a plan to create a hub among the great cities of the north to rival London. He hopes eventually to link the two cities on either side of the Pennines with Liverpool and Sheffield.
The chancellor will say: “We need to think big. We need an ambitious plan to make the cities and towns here in this northern belt radically more connected from east to west – to create the equivalent of travelling around a single global city.
“As well as fixing the roads, that means considering a new high-speed rail link. Today I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high-speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds. Based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure. A third high speed railway for Britain.”
Osborne will be joined at the speech by Sir David Higgins, the new chairman of the HS2 company, who has said the main arguments in favour of the line north of Birmingham are to increase connections between the cities of the north. The argument in favour of the first phase of the line, between London and Birmingham, is to increase capacity. Britain’s first full high-speed rail line, from London to the channel tunnel, was completed in 2007.
The chancellor will take a swipe at Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, who appeared to question his party’s support for HS2 last year, when he says that the line is being built thanks to an “unusual alliance” between David Cameron and “Labour civic leaders”. His remarks are a reference to the intense lobbying campaign, spearheaded by the Labour leader of Manchester city council, Sir Richard Leese, which helped persuade the party leadership to vote for HS2.
Balls said: “Nobody will believe the Tories can deliver the jobs, growth and investment we need for the north of England. Regional growth divides have widened markedly since 2010. The Tories scrapped Labour’s successful regional development agencies, failed to implement Lord Heseltine’s growth report and are planning to cut infrastructure investment next year. And the important work of implementing the Northern Way taskforce agenda also ground to a halt when the RDAs were abolished. On high-speed rail, we said months ago that we need value for money for the taxpayer and to improve the existing plans to maximise the benefits for the whole country and strengthen the links between northern cities. Ministers need to finally start listening.”
Osborne will say: “Of course, there are opponents of the project – just as there were opponents of the original railways. I’ve discovered that almost everything worth doing in politics is controversial. But thanks to the unusual alliance of a Conservative prime minister and Labour civic leaders, we are making it happen.”
The chancellor’s speech is designed to portray the Tories as committed to the north despite their failure to win seats in most of the main cities. It is also designed to show commitment to rebalancing the economy amid criticisms that the economic upturn is based on debt-fuelled consumer spending and a housing boom in the south-east.
In his speech Osborne will lay out his plan to create a powerhouse linking the four great cities of the north: “The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country. We need a northern powerhouse too. Not one city, but a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world.”