Rishi Sunak has been accused of attempting to “muddy the waters” ahead of next year’s election after another apparent U-turn on controversial plans to scale back key rail links in the North.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced it will re-examine plans to snub Bradford from Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and Leeds from HS2 following criticism from the Commons Transport Committee and northern leaders.
But industry insiders and sources close to northern leaders suggested the move was part of the Prime Minister’s attempts to shore up his vote in “Red Wall” seats following a backlash at the scaling back of both projects, pointing out there was “no new money”.
It comes after Boris Johnson’s Government in 2021 watered down promises to fully fund NPR and scrapped the HS2 link to Leeds, in a move partially blamed on then-chancellor Mr Sunak.
Mr Johnson’s successor Liz Truss subsequently U-turned and promised to build NPR in full.
However, this was jettisoned once Mr Sunak entered No 10 in a bid to bear down on Ms Truss’s massive borrowing plans, which had spooked financial markets.
Now in the latest move, the DfT said it would carry out a “reassessment” of its controversial decision to reject plans for NPR to include a new line to link Bradford – seen as one of the worst connected cities in the UK.
Meanwhile, the Government will update its cost-benefit analysis of taking HS2 all the way to Leeds, rather than terminating it in the East Midlands, after the Transport Committee said the Government had not properly tested the options and left out analysis of wider economic “levelling up” impacts.
However, the move was met with scepticism from northern leaders and the industry.
A source close to northern leaders said: “The timing of this is quite something – the PM’s team are blatantly muddying the waters before the election, because Labour are fully signed up to Northern Powerhouse Rail in full via Bradford, and HS2 reaching Sheffield and Leeds.
“Let’s hope they don’t change their mind again, with what would be their fifth U-turn on this, because the people of the North deserve much better.”
An industry insider said: “This is just more smoke and mirrors, ahead of the next general election.
“The reality is there’s no new money, it’s just empty sentiment.
“The industry is just being kept on hold.
“It’s no different to what the Prime Minister said last summer when he ran unsuccessfully for leader.
“What it’s really about is just kicking the can down the road until a new government can actually decide what is to be done.”
Transport Committee chairman Iain Stewart, a Conservative, said: “We are particularly glad to see DfT taking an open-minded approach to building a new station at Bradford – sometimes dubbed the most badly connected city in the UK – and doing more analysis of a range of different network options.”
It came as HS2 Ltd’s chief executive resigned amid major delays and cost pressures for the high-speed railway project.
Mark Thurston, 56, will leave his £617,300-a-year role in September after six-and-a-half years leading the Government-owned company.
HS2 was initially scheduled to open in 2026, but this has been delayed to between 2029 and 2033 due to construction difficulties and rising costs.