Rishi Sunak gambles on scrapping HS2 to reset premiership
During his Conservative Party conference speech in Manchester yesterday, the Prime Minister confirmed that the northern leg of HS2 to the city will be scrapped, with £36 billion of estimated savings spent on a series of upgrades across the UK, dubbed “Network North”.
This includes £2 billion of new funding for a West Yorkshire mass-transit scheme, which the Government said could be a network of seven lines, Leeds with Huddersfield, Wakefield, Bradford and Halifax.
Bradford will receive a new station as part of a further £2 billion of upgrades which will speed up journey times, increase capacity and new links to other Northern cities.
In addition, several smaller projects have also been given the green-light under the plans agreed at a Cabinet meeting yesterday morning, including speeding up and reopening various rail lines across Yorkshire, as well as smaller road schemes such as the Shipley bypass.
However, questions still remain over when, or if these will be delivered following next year’s general election.
The Prime Minister’s press secretary said funding would be spent in the same 2029-40 period as planned for HS2, but the delivery dates of the projects have not been announced, with fears that they could suffer the same delays, spiralling costs and eventual cancellation seen for high speed rail.
It will also see land in Yorkshire which remains safeguarded for the potential future development of high-speed rail lines lose its protection “at the earliest opportunity”, according to the Department for Transport.
“I am ending this long running saga,” he told the party’s conference in Manchester during an hour-long speech with key announcements on scrapping A-levels and banning smoking.
“This is the right way to drive growth and spread opportunity across our country. To level up. With our new Network North, you will be able to get from Manchester to the new station in Bradford in 30 minutes, Sheffield in 42 minutes and to Hull in 84 minutes on a fully, electrified line.”
The move comes as the Prime Minister attempts to revitalise his premiership ahead of Labour’s Party conference in Liverpool next week, and the expected year-long lead up to next year’s general election.
Recent polling suggests Labour has around a 15-point lead over the Conservatives, which has stayed largely consistent for most of Rishi Sunak’s time as Prime Minister.
The radical move on HS2 will see Labour face difficult questions over what it will fund, and what will make it into their manifesto.
Though Government officials noted that the scrapping of HS2 would not require legislation-change in the House of Commons, any potential vote or motion could see Labour MPs forced to choose between HS2 and new rail, bus and road upgrades in their constituency.
However, the attempt to move away from around a decade of political consensus was not welcomed by previous Prime Ministers, with David Cameron, whose chancellor George Osborne is still involved in the Northern Powerhouse project he launched in the 2010s, accused Mr Sunak of losing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”.
“Today’s decision on HS2 is the wrong one,” he said.
“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.
“Today’s announcement throws away fifteen years of cross-party consensus, sustained over six administrations, and will make it much harder to build consensus for any future long-term projects.”