Government promises to bring the mothballed Leamside railway line back into use and finally dual the A1 in Northumberland could herald a “new epoch” for the North East – but have been met with heavy scepticism by critics.
Rishi Sunak confirmed on Wednesday that he would be scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the HS2 train project due to ballooning costs, sparking fury among many northern leaders.
In its place, the Prime Minister pledged to pump £36bn into other transport upgrades across the North and Midlands – including two of the North East’s longest-held ambitions.
The restoration of the Leamside Line, closed since 1964, is seen as critical to plans to expand the Tyne and Wear Metro to areas including Washington and freeing up capacity on the congested East Coast Main Line.
And dualling the single lane section of the A1 between Morpeth and Ellingham has been a hot topic in the region for decades – and is something which was previously given Government approval as far back as 2014, yet work has never begun despite multiple promises.
But there was little detail on either project in Downing Street announcements following Mr Sunak’s party conference speech beyond naming them among a list of North East projects included in the new ‘Network North’ programme, with no mention of their costs or timescales for construction.
The price of reopening just part of the Leamside Line to create a new Washington loop of the Metro was put last year at a whopping £745m – a figure that would not cover restoring its entire length, which stretches from Pelaw in Gateshead to Tursdale in County Durham.
John McCabe, of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, said it was “unclear” whether the huge shift in funding announced by Mr Sunak would deliver for the region.
He added that the PM’s promises “will have to be backed up by funding and a sensible, clear timetable for delivery, including the full reopening of the Leamside Line, if they are to be made real and meaningful”.
Liz Twist, the Labour MP for Blaydon, also questioned whether the Government’s pledges could be delivered.
She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “We were promised HS2, we were promised Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), now we are getting something else all together. All the promises from the Government are not getting people to work or where they need to go.
“After 13 years of promises, we need a Government that will act – and after 13 years the Tories have proved they are not up to the task.”
But Paul Howell, the Conservative MP for Sedgefield and another vocal backer of the Leamside Line campaign, hailed the PM’s announcement as creating a new rail link from Tyne to Tees.
He added: “This is a great day for our region and one that has been long overdue. Today heralds a new epoch in our region’s transport Infrastructure story and I am humbled to have played a part in securing this vital inheritance for our children’s future.”
Jamie Driscoll, the independent North of Tyne mayor, has questioned the benefits of HS2 to the North East over recent days and welcomed the prospect of more funding being diverted to the North East.
His office said the mayor had been told that the North East’s next share of the Government’s City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement would increase by £700m, to £1.8bn.
Mr Driscoll, who quit the Labour Party this summer, said: “It has been obvious for some time that HS2 beyond Birmingham was getting cancelled. I understand it’s hugely frustrating for the North West. But from our perspective it was never coming near the North East anyway. So, it was always hard to see the benefits.
“I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport to make sure the North East got our fair share for once. Our teams will be working on the details, but a figure of £700m of extra funding for our region’s creaking transport system is good news.”
However, responding to Mr Driscoll on social media, North Tyneside’s deputy mayor Carl Johnson warned that “if you believe any of these promises [from the Government] you’ll believe anything”.
He added: “NPR promised 60 times. A1 dualling, Moor Farm and Seaton Burn roundabouts upgrades promised but never delivered. Leamside Line not delivered. Refusing to invest in the Metro time and time again. The list is endless.”
Mr Sunak said in his party conference speech in Manchester that the costs of the HS2 project had “more than doubled” and that “the facts have changed”, after which the Government released a list of its pledges to the North East including:
- Funding to dual the section of the A1 between Morpeth and Ellingham;
- £460 million for smaller road schemes, including the Blyth Relief Road;
- Reopening the Leamside Line, which runs between Pelaw in Gateshead and Tursdale in County Durham, and building a new railway station at Ferryhill;
- Funding for contactless or smartcard travel ticketing;
- £1.8 bn for the North East from the City Regional Sustainable Transport Settlement 2 and HS2 funding.
Thom Campion, a Lib Dem councillor in Newcastle and the party’s Parliamentary candidate for Berwick, called the PM’s announcements “fairytale commitments”.
And Kim McGuinness, Labour’s North East mayoral candidate, claimed that chances of the Conservatives delivering on the ‘Network North’ promises were “slim”.
She and union leaders were among those to hit out at the scrapping of the northern section of HS2, the infrastructure for which was also intended to form part of east to west rail links.
Clare Williams, UNISON Northern’s regional secretary, said the Government abandoning the project “makes a mockery of their claim to level up the North”.
However, Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen was among those to defend the decision, calling HS2 a “colossal waste of money”.
He added: “This is what the North needs and deserves. A London-centric view that Manchester is the North is wrong and HS2 was never going to benefit anywhere in the NE. This money on hundreds of vital transport projects across the North will make a real difference to communities and families.”