The Transport Secretary Mark Harper yesterday confirmed that the Crewe-Birmingham leg of HS2 will be delayed by two years. This means the high-speed rail line, which would have boosted travel in the north of England, may not be extended beyond Birmingham until 2036, while services are unlikely to reach Manchester until the 2040s. Harper said this was a “difficult but responsible decision” made due to inflation and spiralling costs.
The decision had long been predicted but still caused a backlash. Jonn Elledge has written a typically scathing piece about why HS2 is a symptom of our terminal decline, while shadow transport minister Louise Haigh said “the north is yet again being asked to pay the price for staggering Conservative failure”.
This is not the first time the plans and schedule for HS2 have changed. In 2021, it was announced that both the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds and a high-speed route from Manchester to Leeds would be scrapped: anyone who’s braved a rush hour train journey over the Pennines will guess how this was received. At this point, the creaking northern rail network has become somewhat of a given.
Ministers may feel they have a good excuse for delaying the project when the economy is in trouble. The cost of HS2 is estimated to be an eye-watering £71bn, having more than doubled in cost since 2010. Many have questioned whether a 20-minute reduction in travel time between London and Birmingham is a real benefit, but HS2’s supporters have always stressed the value of strengthening Britain’s infrastructure for the future. When HS2 is finally completed, many years from now, making it a success may well be Labour’s responsibility. Cutting and running from the project may serve the Tories well in the short term, but not necessarily in the longer run.
The government scaling back a big-ticket item designed to help the country outside of London is a familiar tale. In January, Rishi Sunak was facing accusations that levelling up had been all but scrapped as his latest funding announcement led the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands Andy Street to hit out at Whitehall’s “broken begging bowl culture”. The West Midlands received just £155m of the £2.1bn levelling up fund. The remaining allocation indicated that the south-east of England had been favoured over the Red Wall in the north.
Voters in the north might not take the HS2 decision with them into the ballot box. Many had long ago given up hope of having an efficient rail network comparable to that in and around London any time soon. Some may be satisfied with other improvements to northern rail and there may be other, bigger priorities. But this announcement is likely to add to the ever-increasing stack of evidence that the Red Wall stops being important when the opinion polls change.
Where has the levelling-up fund money been distributed?
Levelling up won’t happen until the UK solves its drugs problem