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Exclusive: Government accused of using ‘fag packet’ in hotel room to draw up £36bn HS2 replacement plan

The government is facing backlash after sources claimed its much-maligned HS2 Network North plans were rushed together by Number 10 spads.
The government is facing backlash after sources claimed its much-maligned HS2 Network North plans were rushed together by Number 10 spads.

The shadow transport secretary has accused the government of using the back of a “fag packet” to draw up its transport plans for the North of England.

Louise Haigh MP made the comments after sources accused the Department for Transport (DfT) of having minimal input in plans to replace the northern leg of HS2 with £36bn of alternative transport projects.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled ‘Network North’ at the Conservative party conference in October amid fierce backlash over the government’s decision to axe parts of the embattled high-speed line.

The DfT claimed it was “unleashing a tidal wave of new investment into hundreds of projects that matter not because of a press release in Westminster – but because they deliver for people everywhere in the country.”

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But a senior source with knowledge of the proceedings told City A.M. the document was “rushed together in Number 10 by a bunch of Spads [special advisers]” and not even written by the DfT.

The source added the “poorly drafted” piece of work had “too many errors in it, and should be reviewed and republished.”

Huge swathes of the Network North plan quickly unravelled in the weeks after Sunak’s announcement. Many of the schemes were published in error, others already existed and experts and local leaders have warned that a large chunk were not properly costed or lacked adequate business cases.

Less than 24 hours after publication, a plan to reopen the Leamside railway line in the North East was inexplicably struck off. The Financial Times later reported UK ministers did not even consult Network Rail, the body responsible for managing British rail’s infrastructure system before the plans were published.

An industry source said: “It’s hard to imagine that.. the DfT would produce a document like that without having had a conversation with Network Rail. That’s the thing that makes it really clear that it wasn’t, because they were totally unconsulted on it, which is astonishing.”

Responding to the claims, Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh MP said: “It will come as no surprise to anyone that this shambolic plan was cobbled together by people with no knowledge of transport in a conference hotel room. This is sticking plaster politics at its very worst.”

“The Conservatives’ back of a fag packet plan promised extensions to roads that didn’t exist, tram lines that had already been built and reannouncements of projects they promised a decade ago,” she told City A.M.

“When a government makes huge decisions on the fly without even bothering to consult experts or the communities they will affect, a monumental shambles like this is the result. Why would anyone in the North trust a word the Tories say after this fiasco?”

The government sparked an outcry from Northern Leaders in October when Rishi Sunak announced its decision to cut the Northern leg of the route amid ballooning costs.

Sir John Thompson, the executive chairman of HS2 Ltd, told MPs on Wednesday that building the route between London and Birmingham would cost as much as £66.6bn. In 2013, the cost of the entire project was estimated at around £37.5bn, including the now-axed extensions to Manchester and Leeds.

Clare Hayward MBE, DL Interim Chair of NP11, a business-led body representing the North, told City A.M.
“The North stood to gain significantly from HS2, on a macro and a micro level, with the potential to
boost economic output and deliver new jobs and homes. HS2 and NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail) were designed to provide a spine of connectivity that would then spread across the region into smaller locally-focused projects.”

“Individuals in the region will no longer be able to count on the broader opportunities opened up by greater capacity, improved connectivity and shorter rail journeys.”

She added that the Network North document was “a starting point” and that NP11 was “keen to continue working with the government to develop detailed plans and approaches to delivery.”

In a statement to City A.M., a DfT spokesperson denied the claims as “completely untrue” and said “the department and ministers were directly involved in the plans” long before they were announced.

The DfT did not respond to follow-up questions asking why elements of the plan appeared to unravel in the weeks following its announcement, or why it did not consult Network Rail if it was directly involved in the proposals.

No details were provided on the extent of its involvement, when the DfT was made aware of the plans, or what government departments were involved.

“The government is reinvesting every penny of the £36bn saved from HS2 which, instead of a single rail line that would not have fully arrived until the 2040s, will deliver hundreds of projects across towns, cities and rural communities across the country,” the spokesperson added.

“These projects will benefit more people in more places, more quickly – and we are working closely with Network Rail and other partners to help deliver this.”

Number 10 declined to comment.