Savings to be spent on ‘hundreds’ of smaller projects, while Euston link to go ahead under new management
Rishi Sunak has announced the government’s flagship high speed rail project will not be built to Manchester.
After weeks of speculation, the prime minister used his party conference speech in the northern city to confirm his decision to axe the second phase of the scheme.
He outlined his plan to reinvest “every single penny” of the £36bn saved into “hundreds” of smaller transport projects across the country, including east-west links in the North.
”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,” he said.
The prime minister also said he would “protect” the £12bn to link Manchester and Liverpool, help West Midlands mayor Andy Street extend the West Midlands metro, build a tram in Leeds and electrify the North Wales mainline, as well as invest in a variety of road schemes.
Sunak set his cuts to HS2 in the context of a different approach to politics, pitching himself as a politician willing to make difficult decisions and challenge vested interests.
“Where a consensus is false, we will challenge it, where a vested interest is placing itself above the needs of the people, we will stop it,” he said.
“I say to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed and the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.”
Sunak described an “exhaustion” with politics among the public and decried “rhetorical ambition that does little more than achieve a short-term headline” and “vested interests standing in the way of change”.
He said HS2 was the “ultimate example of the old consensus” and that the business case had been “massively weakened” by changes to business travel post-Covid.
The high speed railway will still run to a new Euston, however, an element of the scheme that had also been in peril after being mothballed earlier this year.
However, that job will be taken away from HS2 Ltd. Instead, the government will establish a Euston development zone, which Sunak said would see thousands of homes built alongside a new station.
“There must be some accountability for the mistakes made by the lessee management of this project,” he said.
He claimed £6.5bn of savings would be achieved through the new approach and promised to give this to “the rest of the country”.
While new high-speed rail will not be built north of Birmingham, HS2 trains will run to Manchester on existing West Coast Mainline track.
More than £580m has already been spent buying land north of Birmingham for the scheme, with more than 400 houses purchased on the way from Crewe to Manchester alone.
Questions over HS2’s future have hung heavy over the conference this week, with regional mayors from both major parties rallying opposition to the planned cut among the business community.
> Also read: HS2 cuts could turn line into ‘shuttle service’ between Acton and Birmingham, says infrastructure chief
Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, made an unadvertised appearance at a reception hosted by rail leaders on Monday, at which he said he was “open” to a conversation about rephasing rail investment plans and pleaded for the land assembly between Birmingham and Manchester to be protected so that HS2 could be delivered at a later date.
On Tuesday, his Conservative counterpart in the West Midlands, Street, revealed he had assembled a group of private firms – including Mace, Siemens Mobility, Arcadis and Arup – willing to consult with the government on bringing in private investment to complete the scheme.
By the time the prime minister took to the stage in Manchester, it was clear that both men’s efforts had been in vain. Street is now considering quitting the party over the matter, according to reports in The Guardian.