By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will consider building an east-west high-speed railway between cities in northern England to help boost economic growth outside London, finance minister George Osborne will say on Monday.
Less than a year away from a national election and with his Conservatives trailing by six points in the polls, Osborne’s call to build a “northern powerhouse” will be seen as an attempt to boost the party’s appeal in the opposition Labour party’s northern heartlands.
“The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough … So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country,” Osborne will say at a speech in Manchester, according to extracts released in advance.
“We need an ambitious plan to make the cities and towns here in this northern belt radically more connected from east to west … That means considering a new high-speed rail link.”
Osborne will say the potential link between Manchester and Leeds could be based on the existing rail route, but with trains running faster and with new tunnels and infrastructure.
A connected network of northern cities will provide better jobs and opportunities, Osborne will say.
“In the modern knowledge economy, businesses and entrepreneurial types want to flock together more than ever. To form clusters where they can learn from and spark off each other.”
A north-south high-speed rail connection is already planned, with the first leg of the route between London and Birmingham in central England due to be completed in 2026, and an extension to Leeds and Manchester to be finished by 2033.
Work on the north-south line, which has proved contentious due to the estimated 43 billion pound price tag and a backlash from residents of constituencies along the planned route, is not due to start until 2017.
Labour economy spokesman Ed Balls said in a statement: “We said months ago that we need value for money for the taxpayer and to improve the existing plans to maximise the benefits for the whole country and strengthen the links between northern cities.”
He added: “Nobody will believe the Tories (Conservatives) can deliver the jobs, growth and investment we need for the north of England. Regional growth divides have widened markedly since 2010.”
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)