Sunak scraps HS2 Manchester leg but promises to ‘reinvest every penny’ saved

Posted on 5 Oct 2023 by James Devonshire

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that the northern leg of the long-awaited HS2 high-speed railway project is to be scrapped.

Closing this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Wednesday, Sunak blamed spiralling costs as the reason why HS2 will no longer link Birmingham and Manchester as previously planned. The government will now scrap the remainder of the project and passengers will need to rely on existing West Coast Mainline track from Birmingham to Manchester, instead of the proposed high-speed link.

To lessen the blow, Sunak pledged to “reinvest every penny” saved – c. £36bn – in local transport improvements in the midlands and the north, including rail, roads, buses and trams.

“This means £36bn of investment the projects that will make a real difference across our nation,” Sunak said. “Our plan will drive far more growth and opportunity here in the north than a faster train to London ever would.”

But politicians and business leaders alike have condemned Sunak’s decision, saying it massively damages investor confidence in the UK.

“This is the biggest and most damaging U-turn in the history of UK infrastructure,” High Speed Rail Group, which represents rail and engineering firms, including Siemens and Hitachi, said in a statement. “What we have now is a plan for a railway that will not deliver the transformational benefits the north of England needs.”

After Sunak’s conference revelation, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham posted on social media: “So, in other words, HS2 won’t go to Manchester and people in the North will be treated as second-class citizens – again?

“What a disgrace.”

Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of Birmingham, said the U-turn “damages” Britain’s international reputation and that as a “serious G7 country”, we had to be able to deliver on “difficult” infrastructure projects.

Speaking to radio station LBC, he added that investors had already committed “hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds” on the “promise” of HS2. “You cannot then turn around to those investors and say, ‘We’ve changed our mind.’”

Commenting on the scrapping of HS2, Stephen Phipson, Chief Executive of Make UK, said: “Whilst the announcement of investment in Northern transport infrastructure is important and very welcome, the decision to end HS2 in Birmingham is deeply frustrating as this should not have been a binary choice. The strategic benefits of linking up London, Birmingham and Manchester was not simply about passenger transport, but about creating substantial new capacity for the movement of goods and freight on today’s over-stretched network. Failing to invest for the future is something we are likely to regret in the longer term.

“More importantly, the decision today sends a hugely disappointing message about our commitment to completing major infrastructure projects in the UK. For too long we have lagged behind our competitors in the investment we make in road, rail, ports, airport capacity and energy production and supply. If we are to make up that shortfall it is vital that the UK not only has a detailed, ambitious and funded Industrial Strategy, but that we commit to delivering these projects in full, and not giving up when the job is half finished. The signal that this sends to potential investors could not be clearer.”

Julian Worth FCILT, spokesperson for the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) Strategic Rail Policy Group, added: “CILT is deeply disappointed at the cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham and the negative consequences this is likely to have for the British economy and environment. The dramatic improvements in connectivity the North and Scotland would have seen cannot be delivered by alternative schemes and their economies will be significantly disadvantaged as a result.

“The rest of the world is forging ahead with construction of high-speed rail lines as the preferred way of improving infrastructure and decarbonising long-distance transport. It does not seem plausible that the current UK government is right to abandon high speed rail and that everyone else has it wrong.”

David Carns, Managing Director of National Infrastructure Solutions (NIS), a Wolverhampton-based training specialist in rail, civil engineering and construction skills, added: “The decision to scrap HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester feels like a real betrayal, there’s no point sugar-coating it or saying otherwise.

“We have been heavily involved in training people in entry rail and civil engineering skills to work on the different phases and that has included more than 50 apprentices, returners to the world of employment and those that have been long-term unemployed.

“The project has delivered thousands of immediate and sustainable jobs and, importantly, has given us the opportunity to engage with the disengaged. We were able to say ‘give this a chance as we can give you the basic skills and then train you to specialise’ – all of this with the best incentive a person can have, the prospect of a well-paid and long-term career at the end of it.

“This isn’t about political point scoring; this is going to have a real impact on the lives of thousands of people who felt that HS2 would give them a chance to prove themselves and achieve more in life.

“We join with many others in our sector and across the Midlands and the North in insisting that the Government lives up to its promise of redirecting any savings from HS2 into investment in supporting critical rail and infrastructure improvements programmes across our region and beyond.”

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