There is real anger at the decision to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 which would have brought high-speed rail to Leeds.
We were repeatedly promised that both HS2 East and Northern Powerhouse Rail – a new high speed route connecting Manchester and Leeds via Bradford – would be delivered in full, but that promise has now broken. Leeds and the North have been very badly let down.
I have written before about the huge difference in transport investment in London and the South East compared to Leeds and the North. We get much less and if levelling up was supposed to be about changing that then judging by the HS2 and NPR decision it doesn’t look like this is going to happen.
HS2 has had its critics who say that it’s only about a quicker way of getting to London. I disagree, although I don’t think the initial case made for the project helped. It focused too much on speed which is actually a marginal benefit. The real argument for high speed rail is about capacity and connectivity.
When people say that because it wouldn’t stop near them there’s no benefit, in fact by taking some trains off the existing lines you free up space for new services which benefit everybody along those routes. And secondly, looking at HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and a mass transit system for Leeds all together you can see how connectivity would be greatly improved. That would be good for the economy, for people getting to work and moving to new jobs and for encouraging new businesses to come to Leeds and Yorkshire and the North.
This was meant to be an investment for the next 100 years or more, and as I said in the House of Commons, I think the great Victorian railway engineers would be scratching their heads in disbelief that a high speed line is going to be built as far as East Midlands Parkway only then to leave a great big hole between there and Leeds. And what’s more, the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail line which would have linked up Bradford isn’t happening either and there is now uncertainty about the expansion of Leeds station, which is already operating at almost full capacity. All we are getting is yet another study.
Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a rapid transit system. Ministers have talked about allocating £200m to develop proposals and start work on one – which is a start that I welcome – but it seems that the total cost for the initial network will be £2 billion and at the moment we have no idea where the rest of the money is going to come from.
Anyway, not withstanding the disappointment, I will continue to campaign for Leeds and Yorkshire to get its fair share of transport investment so that we can develop a modern rail transport system fit for the 21st-century.
I recently visited a Co-op store in the city centre to support the shopworkers’ union USDAW’s campaign against violence directed at shop workers. The Co-op has seen a 650% rise in violence towards staff between 2016 and 2020, and it is shocking that the attacks staff face can involve weapons like knives and syringes and, during the pandemic, being spat at. The staff told me that the vast majority of customers are of course great, but some of their experiences were quite frightening.
USDAW is campaigning for the creation of a specific offence of violence directed towards people working in shops. I am supporting this idea for a change in the law, as is the Co-op. Shop staff serve the public and they deserve to be able to do their job free from the fear of abuse, intimidation and violence.
This is the time of year when we remember all those who laid down their lives in conflict on behalf of our country. Recently I had the great privilege of attending a remembrance event to unveil a plaque to the 57 young men, all of whom had attended Hunslet Carr Primary School, who were killed in World War One. There were relatives of some of those who died there and the service was extremely moving. I’d like to express my thanks to the Hunslet Carr Residents Association for all their hard work in making it possible, and there’s now a lovely permanent memorial right next to the Welcome to Hunslet Carr wheel which tells the story of those 57 brave men.
It just so happens that later on that day I went to St Luke’s Church in Beeston to help open the new community hub. The extension to the building looks beautiful and is wholly in keeping with the features of the original church, but what took my breath away was the huge crowd of people inside, including lots of different community organisations. I made the point in my remarks that beautiful buildings are great but even more wonderful are the people inside them. People who extend a welcome and a hand of friendship to those who walk through the doors. I want to thank the Reverend Alistair Kaye and all of those who helped make the extension possible and the event so memorable.
And finally, as this is my last column of 2021, can I take this opportunity to wish you, your family and your friends a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.