For sale: the land previously held for HS2 Northern Leg .. or not
The UK government has announced that land previously designated for the now-cancelled northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail project has had restrictions on its use lifted, allowing owners freedom, and even for sale on the open market. Transport Secretary Mark Harper revealed that people can now apply to build on the land. Rules requiring councils to consult with the firm building the line for planning applications have been lifted.
The HS2, a high-speed rail project, has been through many rounds of review. In October last year, the UK prime minister, Richi Sunak, finally cancelled the northern leg. That part of the high-speed rail project would have expanded the project beyond the London to Birmingham shuttle and reached into the north of England. That is not happening anymore. Instead, it’s the biggest closing-down sale of the century, so far. Unless leaked details of a secret meeting are true.
“Certainty” to residents along the former route
HS2 Northern Leg was scrapped by the UK government in October. The irony was evident when the prime minister made the announcement in Manchester, where the HS2 would no longer be reaching. However, that irony has been overshadowed by the even bigger controversy of the transport secretary, Mark Harper, announcing the removal of safeguarding restrictions across most of the abandoned route.
The safeguarding directions, which are planning tools to protect the land from conflicting development, were lifted to provide what Harper called “certainty” to residents along the former route of HS2 and facilitate easier development in the area. In reality, the only certainty of his announcement has been to unleash a renewed wave of anger from those whose lives have been disrupted time and again.
Objections to developments lifted
In a written statement to Parliament, Mark Harper outlined what he called the government’s commitment to lifting safeguarding directions for High Speed 2 (HS2) Phase 2a between the West Midlands and Crewe. This move is in line with the government’s commitment to transforming British transport, as outlined in the command paper “Network North” published in October 2023.
Harper stated, “By lifting safeguarding, the government provides certainty to people along the former route of HS2 and makes development easier. HS2 Ltd [the company formed to build the railway] will no longer object to proposed development in the area to which the safeguarding directions had applied.” The statement however highlighted the ongoing safeguarding of land close to Handsacre Junction, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, to allow HS2 trains to connect onto the West Coast Main Line for journeys to Manchester, Liverpool, and Scotland.
No policy or ambition for the future … or is there?
Mark Harper could not have made a more inflammatory statement if his pen had been filled with petrol. The written statement also signalled the closure of compensation schemes for homeowners affected by HS2, with the “Need to Sell” program remaining open to support residents until the blighting effect of HS2 has fully receded. With a general election likely later this year, and a highly probable change of government, there remains significant uncertainty.
Commenting on the announcement, Mick Whelan, the general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, criticised the government’s decision.”This government continues to put the economy into decline with no policy or ambition for integrated transport or a green future”, he said. Whelan expressed further concerns about the impact on future generations, economic growth, and opportunities, emphasising that any talk of “levelling up” – the government policy of economic balance between regions – is a farce.
Nevertheless, one British newspaper, the Sunday Express, leaked details of a not-so-secret meeting, scheduled for this week, involving local and national government representatives and industry stakeholders. The agenda revolves around reversing the reversal of the HS2 Northern Leg. That is a scenario upon which professional sources have expressed scepticism. Perhaps those ‘for sale’ signs might be premature after all.