HS2 to Manchester officially cancelled: a “betrayal of the North”
It was probably the worst kept secret in British political history. Prime Minister Richi Sunak stood up at his party’s annual conference this Wednesday, and told the nation that Britain’s high-speed rail project, designed to bring the north and south closer together, has been cancelled. Civic leaders in the north of England have already called it a “betrayal of the north”. Some have even said it is a betrayal of the future. Those outside the conference, held in a redundant railway station no less, say that they don’t believe this truth, and it is a sell-out of Britain’s credibility.
It has become definitely after all the maybe. HS2 will not reach Manchester. The massive high-speed rail project was the pinnacle of the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ economic agenda, but it has proved to be still born beyond Birmingham – a city hardly anyone north of Old Oak Common would describe as the disadvantaged north. In an ironic twist to what has become something of a farce to observers all around the world, the cancellation announcement was made at a conference in Manchester itself.
Opponents not exactly gloating
Although universally predicted in the previous twenty four hours, it was Grant Shapps, the chancellor (and himself a former transport secretary), who as good as spilled the beans in a morning radio interview, by telling a national audience that while there would still be HS2 branded trains running into Manchester (and elsewhere along existing routes) the emphasis would shift now to delivering projects that benefitted towns and communities in the north of England and Wales. Prior to the speech on Wednesday, those pledges had amounted to little more than vague hints that potholes might be filled in the crumbling roads of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Some might say that after all the speculation and wonder, about how the one hundred billion pound (117 billion euro) wall of financing would be scaled, reality has set in. Opponents of the HS2 scheme are not exactly gloating this morning, glorying in finally achieving their aim, but perhaps feeling somewhat vindicated in their long campaigns against the development. Maybe the united north – a concept in itself that was devised in the south – will benefit from a whole album of alternative, locally based projects, designed to keep alive the dream of economic regeneration.
Ministers manage the disappointment
Rishi Sunak seemed to be on hiding to nothing, no matter what he said in the closing address of his party’s conference. There seems little prospect of the prime minister uniting the Conservative Party, let along the informal cross-party collation of northern leaders and stakeholders, all furious at the prospect of HS2 being cancelled, little by little, with the cold comfort of four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire being finally repaired instead. The diminutive government leader took to the stage, probably asking who placed the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Hopes of a consolation, in the guise of a revived and revitalised “Northern Powerhouse Rail” programme, were to a limited extent answered. While there is activity in the north – the Transpennine Route Upgrade immediately comes to mind – there was a rebirth of a plan for a new Manchester – Liverpool rail link – in effect a very limited revival of the erstwhile East – West “HS3” project. Whether that might give relief to the chronically crowded Castlefield Corridor in Manchester remains to be seen.
Rehashed rail schemes back on track
A revitalised light rail network for Leeds is back on the cards – again. There were also proposals for extending rail services around Birmingham, and a new “Midlands Rail Hub” concept, giving a better connected passenger network in the region. Further proposals included major road improvements, including the A75 road which connects English markets with ferry ports in Scotland that serve Northern Ireland. No mention though of improved or reinstated rail links in that area, as proposed by the Union Connectivity Review an earlier government study, which may ire campaigners in those areas.
The prime minister pledged to reinvest “every single penny’ in hundreds of transport projects for the north and midlands. However, yet another rail strike added to the sombre state of affairs in the epilogue to Rishi Sunak’s first – and likely last – speech to conference. While the leaders in the north would rather be here now and see the promise of HS2 fulfilled, the message from Number Ten Downing Street is a rather curt: don’t look back in anger.