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Sunak Shortens HS2

Lilac Carr, BA Politics and International Relations

At the annual Conservative Party Conference, Rishi Sunak outlined several new government policies that he plans to implement in the next parliamentary session. Among these announcements was the scrapping of the Second Phase of the ‘High Speed 2’ (HS2) transport project, intended to improve transport efficiency and connectivity between London and the North of England.

“‘The facts have changed,’ Sunak stated; ‘The right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.’”

On the final day of the conference, Sunak announced that HS2 would be heavily dialled back, limited to Phase One of the project between London and Birmingham. The rest of the project, including the high-speed rail line intended to connect Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, will no longer go ahead. Justifying the decision, Sunak cited doubling costs, numerous delays in construction, and the time it would take for the project to be completed, with the second phase of the project expected to be operable by 2035 at the earliest. ‘The facts have changed,’ Sunak stated; ‘The right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.’

As a replacement for the HS2 project, Sunak assured Conservative party members, MPs, and the public that he would ‘reinvest every single penny, £36 billion, into hundreds of transport projects in the North, Midlands, and across the country.’ This replacement project – referred to as ‘Network North’ – is a collection of new projects declared by Sunak including funding road schemes; upgrading and resurfacing of roads (across the UK, not specifically the North); increasing connectivity between Northern Ireland and Scotland; building a tram in Leeds; and a rail hub in the Midlands. However, Transport Minister Mark Harper later claimed these were just ‘examples’ of potential replacement projects.

While this may have the support of some Conservative MPs – such as long-standing critic of HS2, MP for Buckingham, Greg Smith, who, in a response to the news stated ‘I’m delighted… HS2 has been shown up for the white elephant that it is,’ and called for the added scrapping of phase one of HS2 – many MPs and former Prime Ministers from both the Conservative and opposition parties have expressed their disagreement with the cancellation. Former Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government first announced the project in 2012, tweeted: ‘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.’ Boris Johnson, who was a supporter of the project during his time in office and under whom Rishi Sunak served as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, publicly agreed with Cameron’s condemnation of the announcement, simply stating ‘I agree.’

Many Labour politicians have also expressed their disagreement, including Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham who expressed his concern that, ‘it would leave the north of England with Victorian infrastructure probably for the rest of this century… that is a recipe for the north-south divide to become a north-south chasm, the very opposite of the levelling up.’ Labour leader Keir Starmer further condemned the HS2 Project as a ‘complete fiasco’ that wasted billions of pounds. However, he also stated that he could not promise that the decision to scrap the HS2 project would be reversed under a potential Labour government.

Concerns have also been raised regarding the future of the government-acquired land intended for the project, which was obtained via compulsory purchase orders and includes over a thousand homes and large areas of woodland. This has been a long-standing point of controversy for conservation groups and environmentalists, who have criticised the project over its increasing habitat loss and carbon emissions. Some, like The Wildlife Trust, have therefore urged the government to ‘stop and rethink.’ 

Sunak had already permitted much of the land intended for use for HS2 to be sold off. It is likely that this will be to private sector developers and not given first resale options to original homeowners, nor given protected area designation for environmental protection. This has again raised concerns by environmentalists and politicians, including from the Labour Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram. He referred to the cancellation of the Manchester leg of HS2 as, ‘Bad for the environment. Bad for the economy.’

Photo Caption: London Liverpool Street Station [Credit: Archie Thomas]

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