Integrated Rail Plan, Unplanned?

Wouldn’t it be good if Government plans were proper plans, subject to detailed assessment of their environmental effects, including formal assessment of reasonable alternatives and with the requirement for further assessment of material changes? But we lost that argument a long time ago, in R (HS2 Action Alliance) v Secretary of State for Transport (Supreme Court, 22 January 2014). The Supreme Court held that the Government’s January 2012 white paper “High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Decisions and Next Steps” was not subject to any requirement for strategic environmental assessment as it was not a plan that “set the framework” for subsequent decision making.

As per the judgment press summary:

“DNS is an elaborate description of the HS2 project, including the thinking behind it and the government’s reasons for rejecting alternatives. However, it does not constrain the decision-making process of the authority responsible, which is Parliament. Formally, and in reality, Parliament is autonomous, and not bound by any “criteria” contained in previous Government statements.

So we were to take it all with a pinch of salt, including images such as this, showing the proposed “Y” route, to Manchester (and ultimately Glasgow) and Leeds (and ultimately Edinburgh via Newcastle):

Department for Transport, January 2012

Bear all this in mind when you read the Department for Transport’s Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands published on on 18 November 2021. The plan “confirms” £54bn of spending on rail and local transport in the Midlands and North in addition to the £42bn already included for HS2 Phases 1 and 2a between London, the West Midlands and Crewe and has these images showing the journey time savings proposed:

What an opportunity to make good promises as to Levelling Up and Building Back Better.

The accompanying press statement summarises the proposals as follows:

“It is a £96 billion plan that outlines how major rail projects, including HS2 Phase 2b, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Rail Hub, will be delivered sooner than previous plans so that communities, towns and cities across the North and Midlands are better connected with more frequent, reliable and greener services and faster journey times.

The plan confirms that the government will:

• build 3 new high-speed lines including:

HS2 from Crewe to Manchester

HS2 from the West Midlands to East Midlands Parkway, enabling HS2 trains to join existing lines to serve Nottingham and Derby city centres (unlike original plans)

• a new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire, as part of Northern Powerhouse Rail

electrify and/or upgrade 3 existing main lines including:

• the Transpennine Main Line between Manchester, Leeds and York

• the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras, the East Midlands, and Sheffield

upgrading and improving line speeds on the East Coast Main Line

The plan also confirms that the government will progress options to complete the Midlands Rail Hub and spend £100 million to look at how best to take HS2 trains to Leeds, including assessing capacity at Leeds station and starting work on the West Yorkshire mass transit system.”

Piecing together the implications one sees that the previous commitment to build HS2 to Leeds in accordance with that 2012 plan has now become simply an extension to East Midlands parkway with HS2 trains then able to go on existing lines to Nottingham and Derby. The long anticipated “Y” becomes a “\”. As recently as 28 May 2021, New Civil Engineer had reported the Transport Secretary saying exactly the opposite: DfT commits to HS2 eastern leg after months of uncertainty.

There is much else to unpack. Those maps stress journey time reductions (which is of course not the only factor at all in securing an improved rail network) but so much is down to the detail: routes, specifications, delivery timescales and of course (HS2 to Leeds being a perfect example) the risk of elements subsequently simply being lopped off. Any supporting assessment work is simply unavailable (see my opening comments).

Let’s go back to New Civil Engineer: The integrated rail plan is a half-baked plan which fails rail passengers (New Civil Engineer, 22 November 2021 – a piece incidentally which accepts the logic of the decision not to extend HS2 to Leeds).

Then let’s turn to the knowledgable Jonathan Stott at Gateley Hamer: Integrated Rail Plan: Midlands wins by country mile and North West in 2nd as Yorkshire handed mass-transit consolation (22 November 2021).

As Jonathan identifies, Yorkshire is potentially the biggest loser, with also a retreat from the proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail, a new-build high speed line between Leeds and Manchester. The regional press had a field day:

West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin has written to Grant Shapps setting out the various failings of the proposals, saying that she and other West Yorkshire leaders “are angry and frustrated by the promises that have been seemingly broken. Our communities feel betrayed”. (26 November 2021).

Transport for the North: Integrated Rail Plan branded ‘woefully inadequate’ (18 November 2021)

The reconsideration (not yet a final scrapping) of HS2 between the East Midlands and Leeds brings little relief incidentally to those whose homes and businesses have long been blighted – safeguarding of the route will remain whilst further analysis is done.

How HS2 U-turn has sent £115 million down the drain after it was spent buying houses on abandoned route – and we can’t even sell them off yet (Mail Online, 19 November 2021)

HS2: Housing estate in limbo after eastern leg axed (BBC, 18 November 2021)

Manchester of course still gets HS2, but with proposals for a terminus station there, with an above ground, rather than tunnelled, route – long a cause for concern on the part of Andy Burnham: Government planning ‘to put HS2 on stilts through Manchester’ (Guardian, 19 November 2021). Fat chance incidentally of any extension of HS2 to Scotland any more it would appear. The Transport Secretary hardly oozes sympathy in his reactions to Burnham’s concerns:

“If we spend £6bn or £7bn building the station underground at Manchester, we will take away from Liverpool, Leeds, Hull or some of the other places that are calling for money … Manchester is a principal beneficiary of this entire programme and we wish his constituents well in their new journey times.”

Journey times, journey times.

Meanwhile, whilst London is certainly suffering in terms of the unrelieved financial pressures upon Transport for London (see eg Nick Bowes’ Centre for London 10 November 2021 blog post Mind the gap: What’s next for the funding crisis at the heart of London’s transport system), there is at least finally some good news around the corner: Crossrail starts final testing phase ahead of opening (IanVisits, 22 November 2021).

The integrated rail plan and what it does or doesn’t do for levelling up is going to be the topic for this week’s clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned session. Guest speakers cover all the bases: from Birmingham the aforementioned Jonathan Stott, from Manchester Urbed’s Vicky Payne, from Leeds barrister Stephanie Hall and from London my Town partner Raj Gupta. Join us via this link.

Courtesy the Bash Mash and JonLawton10

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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