Mayor’s comments come as shadow rail minister questions “implications” of government handling of HS2
Andy Burnham has called for the original pre-covid Northern Powerhouse Rail project to be built in full and part-funded by a land value capture mechanism.
The Greater Manchester mayor said increasing land value along new routes similar to that which has been seen in parts of London close to Elizabeth Line stations was how major infrastructure projects could be funded in the current economic conditions.
Burnham told a fringe event at the Labour conference: “Why shouldn’t we take something back in terms of those raised land values to pay for that infrastructure over the long haul?”
The original £39bn plan for Northern Powerhouse Rail, drawn up before the covid pandemic by Transport for the North (TfN), was scaled back in the government’s long-delayed integrated rail plan in 2021 and replaced with a £23bn line which skipped Bradford.
“We need a plan that is going to fix transport in the north and to my mind that is back to the plan that TfN had and that is a new line across the north of England through Liverpool through Warrington, Manchester Airport to Manchester, where it should be an underground station to Bradford and to Leeds.
“That is what I think this country needs. That’s what the north of England needs and we shouldn’t in any way be bullied out of that vision that the north of England developed for itself.”
The comments came a week after the government also announced it was scrapping the second phase of HS2 between the West Midlands and Manchester.
Burnham told the event, which was hosted by TfN, that prime minister Rishi Sunak’s handling of the decision was the “desperate acts of a dying government”.
“I was at the team with Transport for Greater Manchester [last week after Sunak’s announcement] and they have worked in good faith for over a decade on those plans and actually to see how downcast they were by it, it was just wrong.
“This country is better than that. It shouldn’t be run like that where 15-year-old plans are ripped up in preparation for a party conference.
“I think what we saw is something that we really must object to in the strongest possible terms and we can’t let that moment go and just say that everyone’s moved on. I’ve not moved on.”
Meanwhile, shadow rail minister Stephen Morgan said a Labour government would have to “look very carefully at the implications” of the Conservatives’ handling of the HS2 project.
He told the Labour conference that while Labour had always wanted to build HS2 in full, the “Tories have blown up the project”.
“We need to look very carefully at the implications of this fiasco,” he said. “Now, we know how vital infrastructure is for economic growth, but after the mess this government created, we cannot afford to repeated thew same mistakes again.”
Labour has a long-standing commitment to deliver HS2 in full but party spokespeople have issued conflicting messages since rumours first began to emerge about potential cuts.
>> Also read: Sunak scraps HS2 Birmingham to Manchester leg
While shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh has publicly re-iterated the party’s support for the scheme, shadow cabinet minister Pat McFadden has said the party will need to see its revised costs before making a final decision.
Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer said it could not commit to building the northern leg after the government “took a wrecking ball” to its finances but could only offer the promise of “better connectivity” when asked how labour would approach rail investment.
Yesterday, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves announced in her conference speech that Labour would commission an independent expert inquiry into HS2, which has increased in price from £37.5bn when first launched to more than £106bn by some estimates, to learn how future infrastructure projects can avoid cost overruns.
Reeves also revealed that she had asked Darren Jones, shadow chief secretary to the treasury, to work with industry experts and trade unions to examine every major government capital project “line by line” to ensure that she could “get Britain building again” on day one of a Labour government.
Haigh, meanwhile, refused to be drawn on HS2 policy when asked at the conference, insisting that there would be an announcement later today.
The shadow transport secretary also skipped a number of major rail fringe events at which she had been slated to attend, including one organised by the High Speed Rail Group and Rail Industry Association and another featuring sector union leaders.
Shadow minister for nature and rural affairs Toby Perkins, the stand-in for Haigh at the former event, said he thought criticism over Labour’s alleged flip-flopping on HS2 was “very unfair” and insisted Haigh and McFadden’s comments were not at odds.
“The prime minister not only decided to scrap HS2 and re-spend money, but, we are led to believe, is selling off land to salt the earth and prevent any future government finding it easy to do that,” he said. “If the government changes their policy, it makes our situation different.”
The RIA and HSRG have demanded the route between Birmingham and Manchester should be safeguarded so that “we can still build the capacity that the railway will need when public finances allow” and added: “A rushed land sale will be poor value for money for taxpayers.”
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell echoed this call at a fringe event on Sunday, saying Labour needed to “make it absolutely publicly clear now that we will nationalise those sites and bring them back, because that will deter speculators from buying those sites and in that way we will secure the route”.
“Let’s look at Spain – 2,500 miles of high speed train connecting 16 cities, [where] we can’t connect London, Birmingham and Manchester,” said Mick Whelan, leader of the ASLEF union, speaking at the same event.
“If you build it, they will come. Crossrail – all right it’s late – but 140,000 more journeys a day than it was designed for and it will pay for itself in five years.”
McDonnell added that the government needed to have a “detailed plan on the shelf” for rail investments and how they would be funded by the time it came into office.
He urged the party to publish a 20-year plan for future investment in transport, adding that ”the best people to write that plan […] are the unions themselves”.