During his closing address to Tory party members and supporters, Rishi Sunak confirmed that the government would not proceed with phase two of the rail project, thus scrapping the HS2 Birmingham to Manchester leg. Despite strenuous objections from the business community, affected local politicians, and party colleagues, the PM confirmed the decision to axe the northern section, promising voters’ Network North’ as a replacement.
Rumours that the high-speed rail line would not run past Birmingham had circled for several weeks. After refusing to answer questions to deny or confirm the speculation, the PM used his closing speech to make the announcement. In an attempt to lessen the blow to the public, Sunak vowed to splash the cash on hundreds of transport initiatives across the UK instead.
Blaming a “false consensus” and the support for projects “driven by cities at the exclusion of everywhere else”, Sunak defended his decision. He added that the costs had spiralled while the “economic case” for the HS2 Birmingham to Manchester section had “massively weakened with the changes to business travel post-COVID”.
“I say, to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.
“So I am ending this long-running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project.”
Addressing Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham directly during his speech, the PM added:
“I know we have different views on HS2.
“But I know we can work together to ensure a faster, stronger spine: quicker trains and more capacity between Birmingham and Manchester.”
Network North touted as the solution to all transport woes
The government now wants to invest the money saved by axing the HS2 in its newest transport initiative, Network North, joining “up our great towns and cities in the North and the Midlands”. The plans include high-speed connections from Manchester to Hull, Sheffield, and Bradford.
“No government has ever developed a more ambitious scheme for northern transport than our new Network North.
“This is the right way to drive growth and spread opportunity across our country. To level up”, Sunak added.
Other transport pledges include the construction of a Midlands Rail Hub connecting 50 stations, a tram service for Leeds, and a £12bn project linking Liverpool and Manchester. The A1, A2, A5, and the M6 will also be upgraded.
“I challenge anyone to tell me with a straight face that all of that isn’t what the North really needs.
“Our plan will drive far more growth and opportunity here in the north than a faster train to London ever would.”
HS2 axing sparks outcry
Sunak has come under fire from northern leaders and within the Conservative Party. Speaking ahead of the announcement, Manchester Labour Mayor Andy Burnham said:
“This is long-term infrastructure that outlives any government. For them to be holed up in hotel rooms in Manchester, deciding the future of the North today without even consulting us, just doesn’t feel at all the right way to do things.”
He spoke of voter’s “frustration and anger”, adding:
“It always seems that people here where I live and where I kind of represent can be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to transport.”
Former Chancellor George Osborne said that axing the HS2 Birmingham to Manchester leg would be “a great tragedy”.
Three former PMs, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and David Cameron, spoke against the scrapping, as did Philip Hammond. Some officials are working to keep the legislation in place so that a future Labour government could reverse today’s decision and complete the project.
Pat Mc Faddon, Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, said:
“After 13 years and five Tory Prime Ministers, Rishi Sunak’s latest desperate attempt to reset his weak leadership and divided government won’t fool the British public who are looking at Tory failures all around them.
“The Tories have let Britain down for too long. They cannot be the change from their own failures. The damage they would do with five more years would be intolerable for working people.”