4 Nov 2011

HS2 rail line could start in Manchester and Leeds

On Tuesday the Commons Transport Select Committee will publish its report on HS2, the controversial high-speed train line proposed between London and Birmingham (which, it is planned, will be extended later, in a Y shape, to Manchester and Leeds, and eventually on to Scotland).

The project has encountered stiff opposition, particularly from Conservative voters and party activists at the southern end of the route – in Buckinghamshire and around north-west London.

The new Transport Secretary Justine Greening, is expected to confirm the project before Christmas, possibly with a modified route.

I understand that the select committee will give a broad thumbs-up to HS2 next week, but with an intriguing twist.

MPs on the committee will say that if ministers continue to face opposition at the southern end of the line, they ought to think about switching the project round, and start instead in the north.  Rather than build first from London to Birmingham, and then proceed north, the committee will suggest that the government should begin with the y-shaped phase two – from Manchester and Leeds down to Birmingham.  Then Birmingham to London could be done as the second phase.

This, they say, might involve fewer planning and environmental problems, and more important, would be a much bigger boost for regional regeneration in northern England where it’s more urgent.

This idea’s not surprising perhaps when you consider that six of the eleven members of the Transport Committee are North West MPs.

The chairman Louise Ellman is MP for Liverpool Riverside, and while her colleagues geographically are: Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton), Judy Hilling (Bolton West), John Leech (Manchester Withington), Paul Maynard (Blackpool North) and Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton).  Another member, Julian Sturdy of York Outer, would also have an interest in HS2 coming to Leeds pretty soon.  The rest of the UK has just four MPs on the transport committee.

And geography matters hugely, of course, when it comes to transport policy.   This huge North West (and northern) bias looks like an unintended side effect of the new system, brought in last year, whereby MPs now elect select committees in secret ballots.

Elections may be more democratic, and boost the independence of Parliament, but they also mean select committees can lose balance in terms of things like geography and sex.  In the old days the Government and Opposition whips might conspire to exclude trouble-makers, but they would usually ensure that each committee had a good spread of members in other respects.

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