‘Incompetent at best’: Northern reactions to govt’s HS2 cancellation
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to end the high-speed rail line at Birmingham, rather than carry through into Manchester, has been met with widespread condemnation by those in the North.
Sunak confirmed he was scrapping the Northern leg of HS2 during a speech at the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday. In its place, Sunak said he would deliver a series of projects known as Network North.
Northerners were not impressed.
“Less than a couple of weeks after the government scrapped ambitious net zero plans, they have again lacked the ambition to follow through with HS2,” said John Nash, director at Canning O’Neill.
He added later: “Of course, there will always be debate about whether HS2 was right in the first place and large infrastructure projects are never without their difficulties, but to go this far and argue for it for such a long time, only to then do an about turn at the last minute seems incompetent at best.”
Emma Antrobus, director at the Institution of Civil Engineers North West, quipped Sunak’s announcement “underlines a lack of ability to grapple with and deliver major transformational infrastructure projects”.
Neil Baines, managing director of Steven Hunt Associates, echoed Antrobus’s sentiment, stating that Sunak’s decision “shows that the government is incapable of delivering large infrastructure projects on time and within budget”.
Antrobus and Baines were not the only ones questioning what HS2’s early dismissal meant for the country’s ability to conduct infrastructure projects. Jonathan Harper, planner partner at Rapleys in Manchester, said: “Whether it is rail, roads or trams, the delivery of new infrastructure in the UK generally costs significantly more than it does in other countries across Europe. In addition, the politically continuous nature of many of these schemes means it is easier for the government to shy away from delivering infrastructure which will benefit the country in the longer term.”
For Danny Hope, regional director of the North West at Hydrock, HS2 was more than just a railway line.
“It was a symbol of hope and opportunity for the North,” Hope said. “A chance to level up the playing field and close the economic gap with the South — something the Conservatives promised to achieve during their 2019 election campaign.”
With the chopping down of HS2, Hope said that the North was once again being left behind.
He described Sunak’s decision as “a betrayal of everything that the government promised the North. It’s a betrayal of our people and our future.”
Andrew Dickman, managing director at Tritax Symmetry, was of a similar mind, stating: “The Prime Minister’s decision to abandon plans for HS2 to run from Birmingham to Manchester will have a detrimental impact on the country’s economy for decades to come.
“Excellent infrastructure and connectivity are an essential component of a thriving economy,” Dickman continued. “HS2 would have provided that and would have also demonstrated that the government was truly committed to levelling up. As it stands, we are now left with a national rail service, which is quite simply not fit for purpose.”
Sean Keyes, managing director of Sutcliffe, pointed out that scrapping the project now will still have a cost.
“Several hundred million pounds worth of work will be lost due to this cancellation, not to mention the disregard for the 30,000 employees delivering this crucial project, and the countless businesses and investors across the North West that are currently placing their bets on Manchester as a thriving place to invest based on its promise of increased connectivity,” Keyes said.
The government’s decision is at odds with its levelling up mission, he argued.
“Over 14 million people live in the North, which makes up a huge proportion of the country,” Keyes said. “The workforce in the North of the country needs to be able to fulfil [its] potential by working on an equal footing with the South and so investment and funding of projects such as HS2 is crucial, in order for the country to reach its potential and not just the South.”
Over in Cheshire, Cheshire West and Chester Council Leader Cllr Louise Gittins said that her community had been relying on HS2 to deliver the government’s levelling up promise.
“Our rail network is in desperate need of modernisation to allow for the growth in rail travel required for the critical shift from road to public transport to reduce carbon emissions,” she said. “HS2 was going to increase capacity on our Victorian rail network and provide local people with the modern service they need and deserve.”
She added that the cancellation put into jeopardy the investment opportunities HS2 was supposed to enable in Cheshire and Warrington, including £2bn a year in additional GVA and the delivery of 25,000 homes.
As for Sunak’s proposed HS2 alternative, Network North, Gittins remained cautious.
“We now need much more detail, and clear answers from the Prime Minister about his plans for the still long-awaited investment in our rail networks,” she said.
Tim Heatley, co-founder of Capital&Centric, described Network North as “some consolation”, admitting that “HS2 was the major prize and the decision will really hurt not only Manchester, but the North”.
Heatley added: “Any re-allocation of funding as part of Network North needs to be fast-tracked so that Northern communities aren’t waiting decades to see projects delivered, which would only widen the productivity divide.
“Absolute certainty is needed on funded projects so councils can build their growth strategies and regen priorities around new those new links.”
For Hydrock’s Hope, Network North fails to address the same problem as HS2.
Hope said: “While investment in localised infrastructure, such as Network North and the upgrades to the Energy Coast Line, is welcomed, the government is missing the point that these are solutions to two distinctly different needs: HS2 is unequivocally integral to joining the country up and bringing long-term economic value at a macro level; while improving local services brings value at a micro-level.
“I urge the government to reconsider this decision,” he continued. “We need the initial North-South connections sorting first to truly unlock Northern prosperity and make the towns and cities, from Liverpool to Hull, greater than the sum of its parts.”
It is not just those in the North who fail to be fans of the elimination of the Northern leg of HS2. Former prime minister David Cameron took to X to share his thoughts, writing that “in years to come I suspect many will look back at today’s announcement and wonder how this once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost”.
Today’s decision on HS2 is the wrong one. It will help to fuel the views of those who argue that we can no longer think or act for the long-term as a country; that we are heading in the wrong direction.
HS2 was about investing for the long-term, bringing the country together,…
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) October 4, 2023