The Midlands and North of England have thrown down the gauntlet to Labour - warning that the nation needs a new rail line because existing services just cannot cope.
Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin is leading the Government’s fightback over proposals to create a new high speed line known as HS2 serving London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, to relieve pressure on the overcrowded West Coast and East Coast Main Lines and improve rail links between a number of the nation’s core cities.
But Labour is threatening to a U-turn over the scheme, which former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched alongside former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis in March 2010.
The arguments came to a head as:
• Labour council leaders across the Midlands and North insisted HS2 was essential to create prosperity and jobs
• Employers in the Midlands and North warned of disaster if the project is cancelled
• A new Department for Transport report said upgrading the West Coast and East Coast Main Lines as an alternative to HS2 would lead to years of delays and disruption
• The Transport Secretary confirmed that HS2 would die without cross-party support - and told Labour: “You can’t play politics with our prosperity”.
Labour has expressed concern over the cost of the line, which is estimated at £28.2 billion for the entire route plus £14.4 billion in contingency funding which Ministers say is unlikely to be spent.
Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, has also said that the “the benefits are unclear” even if the scheme stays within budget - and a Labour government might spend the money on housing instead.
However, Labour also insists it has not decided to oppose the scheme and will make a decision based on the benefits and costs.
Both parties have always conceded that the high speed rail line cannot go ahead without cross-party support, because it would be unable to attract private sector investment if there were doubts about a future government’s commitment to it.
The new business case from the Department for Transport warns that scrapping HS2 and attempting to upgrade the existing East Coast and West Coast lines would lead to disruption and cancellations lasting 14 years.
Midland employers warned cancelling the scheme would be “disastrous”.
Jerry Blackett, chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, representing Birmingham, Solihull, Lichfield, Tamworth, Cannock Chase and Burton , said: “Network Rail have stated that alternatives to HS2 would mean 14 years of delays and 2,770 weekend closures on the current network. This would be disastrous for the West Midlands economy, especially in leisure and tourism sectors.
“Cancelling HS2 in favour of upgrades would cost billions, cause untold disruption to commerce, and deliver far less capacity to our overstretched railways.
“Sooner or later, a project like HS2 needs to happen if Britain is to have the rail capacity it needs to function. We can commit to build it now - for a fraction of the long-term transport budget - or we can do it later, at an astronomical additional cost.”
Chambers of Commerce in the North warned that HS2 was vital to creating jobs and economic growth and reducing the North South Divide.
A joint letter delivered to Downing Street said the evidence for HS2 “has, rightly, been set out, analysed and counter analysed exhaustively. Now we, as Northern Chambers, aim to remind you that HS2 brings very tangible benefits for millions of people in the North of England”.
It continued: “What has been a healthy scrutiny of an undoubtedly expensive project has deteriorated into exaggeration and scare-mongering.”
The letter came jointly from the North East Chamber of Commerce, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, St Helens Chamber of Commerce, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, Leeds Chamber of Commerce, Doncaster Chamber of Commerce, Barnsley & Rotherham Chambers of Commerce, Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce and North & West Lancashire Chambers of Commerce.
Senior Labour council leaders called for an end to uncertainty over HS2.
Sir Albert Bore, Labour leader of Birmingham City Council , said: "It is perfectly reasonable for the Opposition to raise questions. However, HS2 is a significant infrastructure project for the Midlands and North and will help rebalance the economy."
Sir Richard Leese, Labour leader of Manchester City Council , said: “Any rational questioning of the cost of HS2 will recognise that the benefits far exceed the costs and the cost of doing nothing is even greater. It’s essential that the economic benefits and the jobs it will support are realised and this once in a century opportunity is seized.”
Nick Forbes, the Labour leader of Newcastle City Council , warned: “High Speed 2 represents a once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment for the whole of the UK, and, in particular the North of England. It requires on-going commitment from all the main political parties and it needs cities to work together with business now to ensure long-term, planned investment and growth.”
York Labour Council leader James Alexander , who represents North Yorkshire on the HS2 project board, said: “With access to the country’s capital in just 83 minutes, the HS2 programme would mean York will become an even greater hub for tourism and business.
“International rail connectivity is also a long-term opportunity for many along the East Coast main line and I know colleagues across the East Coast main line share this view.”
The paper from the Department for Transport sets out plans to create new direct services from Birmingham to Paris in three and a half hours.
It also highlights the potential to create new services on the existing rail network using capacity freed up by moving some long distance services on to the main line.
These will include new services from Coventry to London and Nuneaton to London.
Mr Mcloughlin was due to echo the warning issued by Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis during the last Government and confirm that it will not be possible to build a new rail line without cross-party support.
During a visit to Manchester he was set to say: “The new north-south railway must be a national project with broad support across parties or in the end it will be nothing.”
The Transport Secretary, who grew up in Cannock, will point out that Labour council leaders across the North and Midlands back the scheme.
“They know that any threat to the new line is also a threat to the future of the north and the Midlands.
“To the Britain beyond London where I grew up - and live today.”
And he will urge Labour to stop playing games with the economy, warning: “You can’t say one day you back better infrastructure only the next threaten to stop it being built.
“You can’t go on claiming to want one nation if you won’t back the things that will bring it together.
“You can’t play politics with our prosperity.
“The new north-south line is a multi-billion, multi-year investment in the future of Britain.”