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Government's 'broken promises' over northern rail plans will lead to years of disruption, says Bishop of Burnley

by Donna Birrell

The Bishop of Burnley has strongly criticised the government's revised plans for the rail network in the North of England saying it is a "major breaking of promises".

The Rt Rev Philip North told Premier he is extremely disappointed that the Northern Powerhouse Rail project wouldn't be delivered in full and plans for an extension from Manchester to Leeds are being scrapped.

The Integrated Rail Plan, published this week, set out a scaling back of the Northern Powerhouse Rail project and the axing of the planned east Midlands to Leeds high-speed line, with HS2 trains instead running on existing upgraded routes. HS2 will run to Manchester, but the eastern leg will end at an existing east Midlands station rather than going from Birmingham to Leeds.

The government has instead announced a £96 billion investment plan to upgrade existing tracks which it says will bring faster benefits for rail users and is a better solution.

But Bishop Philip is far from convinced.

"I'm not just disappointed, but actually quite surprised at the level of my disappointment. There's a lot of cynicism in politics and so I've done my best to believe government assurances around the levelling up agenda and around the northern powerhouse. I think the major breaking of promises we saw yesterday just leaves me very disappointed and really wondering how much there is behind any of that language. 

"We spend as a nation about ten times more on transport in the south east of England than we do in the north and that massively needs levelling out. We need huge investment across the northern towns in order to bring quality jobs and further investment. I'm so disappointed those plans have been torn up.

"Sadly, people in the Northwest are fairly resigned to promises being broken. I'm not quite sure how much they believed any of this to begin with, but I think there will be a real disappointment. I think that'll get worse, because the trouble is, what we'll see with the upgrading of lines is years and years of delays and years and years of engineering.

"I do believe it'll bring faster improvements, but I think that we'll have years of chaos now on public transport across the north."

Asked by Premier whether he will be accused of meddling in party politics, Bishop Philip said:

"We have in Jesus Christ a Saviour who redeems every single aspect of a person's life and I think as Christians in the north of the country, we need to have a real passion for the wellbeing of the whole of the region and the wellbeing of the whole person. That's not just about their spiritual selves, passionate that we are about that. It's also about their economic life. It's about their work life, it's about their physical health and wellbeing. We're interested in the redemption of whole people. So I think it's incumbent upon Christians to speak into these situations, even if it attracts controversy.

"I'm not making a party-political point. I speak into this particular situation in which many years of promises have been made about huge, upgraded transport in the north and which a lot of those promises have been broken. Instead, we're going to be faced with continued years of inadequate transport infrastructure in the region."

There's been a backlash against the revised plan from across political parties with Conservative MPs also criticising the government for reneging on its promise to 'level-up' transport infrastructure in the North. The Conservative Chairman of the Transport Select Committee Huw Merriman said:

"The PM promised that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail was not an 'either or' option. Those in Leeds and Bradford will be forgiven for viewing it today as neither. This is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and then leaving it to others to explain the arrival of moonlight."

The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons the changes and investment would bring better rail connections for passengers years earlier in a network that would work for every community. He says the new proposals will mean "virtually every area receiving as good or better service than would have been under the original plans".


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