Business groups line up to criticise rail plan that does little for North East

Business groups have continued their criticism of the Government’s multibillion-pound rail plan after its own maps showed how little the North East stands to benefit from scheme.

The two maps in the Integrated Rail Review that aim to show where rail improvements will be made in the North and the Midlands show that there will be no new or significantly upgraded lines in most of the North East, with the lack of improvements in the region signified by arrows pointing vaguely north and marked “Newcastle”.

As business leaders and industry figures lined up to criticise the rail plan, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps denied the Government reneged on promises to upgrade links for the North after politicians.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of a “betrayal” after it was announced on Thursday that the eastern leg of the HS2 high speed rail line was being scrapped and the Northern Powerhouse Rail link from Manchester to Leeds downgraded, despite promises on both projects.

But Mr Shapps insisted the Government was fulfilling its pledges that both projects would go ahead.

“They are absolutely being fulfilled. We are producing that around 30-minute journey from Manchester to Leeds,” he said.

“When it comes to HS2, we are going to deliver HS2 trains (we are looking at) the best way to do that into Leeds.

“The plan for HS2 was conceived 15 years ago. What we want to do is make sure it actually integrates with these plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail which we are building.

“The only disconnect is some of the complaints from, I have to say, largely Labour leaders who are completely misleading people.

“This will have been the only time in history when massively improving everybody’s rail services would have been counted as a betrayal.”

Maps from the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan

Organisations including the North East England Chamber of Commerce were among those outside politics to criticise the rail plan, which will cost £96bn but is a significant downgrade on what northern leaders had called for.

Marianne O’Sullivan, policy adviser at the Chamber, said: “As demonstrated throughout the Integrate Rail Plan, the North East no longer appears to be part of the ‘core’ northern network. As a region of almost 2.7m people and many world-leading businesses it is foolish for Government to ignore us like this.

“Improving the North East’s transport links ought to be an integral part of the Government’s levelling up agenda not something indicated by a vague arrow. We are urgently requesting a meeting with the relevant ministers to raise our members’ concerns directly and begin discussions on how we might salvage something from any future transport policy.”

Now the Federation of Small Businesses has joined the criticism, with Gill Askew, regional policy chair for FSB Yorkshire, the Humber and the North East, saying the plans were “deeply disappointing.”

She added: “Small firms right across the country were banking on both these projects delivery – and was something we have been promised for very nearly a decade. To say this feels like the rug had been pulled is an understatement.

“This is really is a blow for the North, and raises valid questions about the how serious the Prime Minister really is on the levelling up agenda, and again raises the question of what the Northern Powerhouse actually is?

“For many businesses, Northern Powerhouse Rail was central to the plan, joining up our major cities and providing the big, economic centres of the north with additional, faster links, freeing up capacity for freight lines, and reducing the reliance on our over-stretched road networks across the Pennines to reduce our carbon footprint.

“Many today will be rightly asking whether what’s on the table now will deliver anything like that.”

The Transport for the North group will meet next week to decide its response to the Integrated Rail Plan, which it has described as “woefully inadequate”.

But it has emerged that the Government has already downgraded Transport for the North’s role, with the Department of Transport writing to the body that represents Northern councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships after the publication of the rail plan to say that Whitehall would take over responsibility for the upgrades to the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme.

Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon described the move as a “Whitehall power grab”.

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Graeme WhitfieldRegional business editor