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Backlash Against Scrapping Manchester HS2 Link Grows

HS2

Criticism over the possible scrapping of the HS2 high-speed rail link between Birmingham and Manchester has been increasing as the Government’s refusal to guarantee the link will continue between the Midlands and North West has cast doubt over the Conservative’s commitment to the levelling up agenda.

The HS2 route

HS2 is intended to link London, the Midlands and the north of England through a new zero carbon, high-speed railway. HS2 has become the UK’s flagship transport levelling up project and it is the biggest rail investment ever made in the North of England, as well as Europe’s largest infrastructure project.

In total, over 250 miles of new high-speed line is planned across the country. Major civil engineering works are underway with £23 billion contracted into the supply chain and around 350 active sites between the West Midlands and London, which the Government claims is supporting almost 30,000 jobs.

Delays to HS2

The HS2 scheme as a whole has already faced delays, cost increases and cuts. This includes the planned eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds. The last official estimate on HS2 costs, excluding the cancelled eastern section, added up to about £71bn. However, this was in 2019 so this price does not account for the spike in costs for materials and wages in recent months.

A June statement to Parliament included figures for how much had been spent on HS2 so far and said £22.5bn had been spent on the London to Birmingham leg while £2.3bn had been spent on preparing other sections, on measures such as buying up land. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said last week that costs were getting “totally out of control”.

Moreover, on Sunday, Grant Shapps, the current Defence Secretary and former Transport Secretary, said it would be “crazy” not to review plans for HS2 given that costs have risen. Shapps also would not comment on whether or not separate plans for the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool would still go ahead if the northern section of HS2 is scrapped.

Moreover, doubts about the rail leg has grown significantly recently as the Government has refused to guarantee that the line will continue between the Midlands and North West. Speaking on Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would not comment on “that type of speculation”.

“What I would say is we’re absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country,” Sunak said. “And transport infrastructure is a key part of that, but not just big rail projects, but also local projects, improving local bus services, fixing pot holes, all of these things make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives.”

Responses

The speculation over HS2 has seen former chancellor, George Osborne, referring to the links abandonment as a “gross act of vandalism”. Writing in the Times alongside Lord Heseltine, Osborne also stated that this would be “an act of huge economic self-harm, and be a decision of such short-sightedness that we urge the prime minister: don’t do it”.

“How could you ever again claim to be levelling up when you cancel the biggest levelling-up project?”, they wrote. “Where would a cancelled HS2 leave the North and Midlands? Abandoned is the answer.”

Meanwhile, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said axing the extension risked creating a “north-south chasm” and “rips the heart” out of the plans for the Northern Powerhouse project. “It would leave the north of England with Victorian infrastructure probably for the rest of this century,” Burnham added.

However, Burnham indicated that he was open to talks about postponing the Birmingham to Manchester leg so that rail improvements within the north could take place first. “As part of any discussion we would say, whatever you decide, please don’t scrap it,” Burnham said.

Also at the weekend, more than 80 companies and business leaders also sought clarity over the commitment to HS2. The bosses of dozens of businesses and business groups – including Manchester Airports Group, British Land, Virgin Money, and the Northern Powerhouse – all signed a letter to the government urging renewed commitment to HS2, saying that repeated mixed signals were damaging the UK’s reputation and the wider supply chain.

Moreover, at the Liberal Democrat Conference, Wera Hobhouse plans to make the case for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail within a debate on transport, highlighting the need for local control over franchising and decarbonising the sector.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also posted on X a letter he has written to the Prime Minister. Khan stated “connecting central London to the north with HS2 is vital to the UK’s economic growth—but it must be faster than current options. Abandoning the Manchester to Birmingham leg & terminating at Old Oak Common would be both ludicrous and deeply damaging”.

Final thought

The uncertainty around HS2 and the potential scrapping of the link between Birmingham and Manchester raises questions around the Government’s commitment to levelling up. Abandoning the plans could result in a deepening of the divide between the north and the south which contradicts heavily with the meaning behind levelling up.

With the Conservative Party conference being held in Manchester next month, the Government will inevitably come under further criticism.

Curia’s Levelling Up Commission

Curia’s Levelling Up Commission is considering how the valuable aims of the levelling up agenda can be achieved from the perspective of local and regional government, as well as service providers across all four areas of public policy detailed below. All too often, levelling up is being done ‘to and for’ communities, rather than in partnership. The Commission intends to ensure this is led locally.

To engage with each issue in-depth, a conceptual understanding of the framework at hand is warranted. As such, the Commission defines levelling up as:

“The process of extending opportunities, improving wellbeing and reducing inequalities to empower citizens across the UK, through reducing disparity in resources and access to services. It involves concerted effort to bridge the gap between different regions and communities, with the ultimate goal of creating a more equitable and prosperous society.”

In particular, the Commission will consider how improved public service and infrastructural provisions can help to drive down regional inequalities across England. Through a series of inquiry sessions, written submissions, regional sprints and quantitative data analysis, the Commission will set out a series of recommendations, and an accompanying implementation plan to consider how regional inequalities can be reduced from the perspective of public service design and provision in four key areas:

  • Health and social care
  • Education, skills and training
  • Housing and homelessness
  • Criminal justice and rehabilitation

Upcoming event

Sign up here for Curia’s upcoming Levelling Up event.

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