Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged a £3.6bn boost for deprived towns as he sought to shift the political spotlight from Brexit to the domestic agenda in his first major speech as prime minister.
The Conservative leader said the proposal, which will initially support 100 towns, will help improve transport, broadband and cultural infrastructure.
The commitment, announced yesterday in Manchester, is part of Johnson’s strategy to “turbocharge” regional growth.
He also proposed to fund a new high-speed rail route between Leeds and Manchester but opponents claimed it was a reheated pledge that was first announced five years ago.
Johnson is backing the trans-Pennine transport link, which would cut journey times on the 36-mile route between the two cities from 50 minutes to less than half an hour.
Johnson said: “I want to be the prime minister who does with northern powerhouse rail what we did with Crossrail in London. And today I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.”
In front of a crowd of 100 at the city’s Science and Industry Museum,
Johnson explained that it would be up to local people to agree on the exact proposal they want.
Officials had been tasked to “accelerate” their work on plans so they would be ready for an autumn deal, he said.
Detailed plans about the proposed route will be published in the autumn after a review into HS2, Downing Street has said.
Johnson said he wanted to “inject some pace” into the project to “unlock jobs and boost growth”.
However, Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said that he was “not confident” Johnson would be able to improve rail services given his track record.
“This project has been announced time and time again by the Conservatives,” he said. “With Boris Johnson’s staggering failure to build a bridge across the Thames and an estuary airport, I’m not confident he’ll be able to deliver better train services between Leeds and Manchester.
“What we really need is Labour’s Crossrail for the north, from Liverpool to Hull and up to the northeast to unleash the economic potential of the region.
“Just upgrading the rail between Leeds and Manchester – the same distance as the Central line on the London Underground – won’t achieve that.
“And I want that to start now, with improvements that can happen in the short term, not just big engineering schemes that will take years.”
George Osborne first announced plans for a high-speed rail line connecting Manchester and Leeds in 2014 as part of the then-chancellor’s “northern powerhouse” strategy.
Labour’s Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, welcomed the funding pledge in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, but said: “Northern powerhouse rail is more than Manchester-Leeds. It is about connecting the whole north and it needs to be a new line rather than an upgrade, and I would certainly say that.
“It’s just over five years since George Osborne came to Manchester and promised something similar to what we’re about to hear today.
“And in that time, in those five years, rail services here have gone into reverse.
“So we will be looking very, very closely to see this announcement is followed up by real action.”
Henri Murison, the director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, an independent body representing the voices of business and civic leaders in the region, said: “This is a seminal moment for the north – the entire northern powerhouse concept is all about connecting the cities and towns of the north to boost productivity.
“Northern Powerhouse Partnership has been making a strong case for rebalancing our economy and it is heartening to see the first major policy announcement by the new prime minister is to benefit the north, matching the commitment of businesses already investing here.”
Leeds city council leader Judith Blake said: “Northern powerhouse rail is key to our vision for a modern, reliable transport network that delivers faster journey times, capacity and reliability. I hope the government will now work with us to accelerate delivery of this project.”