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An inside view of Manchester Picadilly train station.

What Rishi Sunak scrapping HS2 – and promising a new ‘Network North'– means for the north of England

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed he is cancelling phase two of the long-standing high-speed rail network project, High Speed 2 (HS2). This comes two years after the government scrapped the eastern Leeds branch of the project.

In a speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester, Sunak promised that “every single penny” from the £36bn he says will be saved by scrapping the Manchester leg of the rail network will, instead, be spent on hundreds of transport and connectivity projects around the country. Included in those he listed were revamped motorways, resurfaced roads, new stations and keeping the £2 bus fare in place for the whole of the country.

We asked the University of Liverpool’s Tom Arnold, an expert on regional policy and infrastructure at the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, to explain what this means for the north of England.

Sunak has said HS2 in the north will be replaced with a new project, dubbed Network North. What is your initial reaction?

At this stage it is unclear what Network North actually is. Is it a replacement for the previously announced (and since significantly downgraded) Northern Powerhouse Rail? Or is it a more comprehensive plan of rail, metro, bus, road and active travel projects?

The list of projects includes many schemes that have previously been announced, such as a West Yorkshire mass transit system, which was promised in the Integrated Rail Plan published in 2021.

No one who has followed the constant churn in transport infrastructure policy in northern England over recent years will have any faith that many of these schemes will be delivered. Perhaps there will be more detail to follow, but at the moment it looks like yet another hastily announced and cobbled together list of proposed projects rather than a coherent longterm plan.

Sunak made a point of saying that the north needed regional connectivity, not to London, but between the east and west of the country. Was this not the purpose of Northern Powerhouse Rail? And how can that project continue without the Manchester leg of HS2?

Northern Powerhouse Rail, initially conceived in 2015 and developed by Transport for the North, was planned on the basis that HS2 would be delivered in full. As a network, its purpose was to connect the core cities of Manchester and Leeds in particular, but also Liverpool, Sheffield, Warrington and Hull.

The extended HS2 station at Manchester Piccadilly was central to the Northern Powerhouse plans, in that that station was already accounted for in the HS2 budget. In other words, simply moving all the money from HS2 to Northern Powerhouse Rail – or other pieces of rail infrastructure across northern England – doesn’t work. Because Northern Powerhouse Rail being built was contingent on HS2 being built.

To begin with, HS2 was a rail project. But it had long since evolved into a tool for the government’s levelling-up agenda. What is the significance of the Northern Powerhouse to regional economies?

Any kind of infrastructure projects is never just about the infrastructure. There’s always a vision of what kind of geography or economy a government is trying to create.

In the life course of HS2, that vision changed quite a lot. It was really David Cameron’s government who took the project on, emphasising that it was about re-balancing the UK economy and growing the core cities of northern England. Cameron’s commitment was to ensure that Leeds and Manchester were better connected to London, but also – and more importantly – better connected to the Midlands.

Getting from Leeds to Nottingham or Derby takes a lot longer than it should do. So too, from Manchester to Birmingham. HS2 was intended to enable people to travel and work between these cities, to take cars off the road and to minimise domestic flights.

Since 2016, however, this focus on cities – in terms of the benefits HS2 would bring – has shifted. Since the EU referendum, the messaging of successive governments around infrastructure has refocused on towns and coastal areas – on post-industrial communities.

This is not why HS2 has been cancelled, but it did help to lay the groundwork for the government to say that what people actually care about is being able to drive into their town centre and park for free. That shift has also suggested that cities like Manchester and Leeds are seeing a lot of development, so they’re fine.

This, of course, is false. Manchester is one of the most deprived local authority areas in the country, despite all the high-rise developments being built. So too, in Liverpool and the other cities of the north.

If you look at the HS2 business case, the best return on investment was the Manchester to Birmingham leg, not the Birmingham to London leg. That’s because it would have brought these cities closer together, reaping economic benefits as well as improving people’s quality of life.

Anyone who travels around regularly on the northern rail network, or the Midlands rail network – as I do on a weekly basis – knows it is a miserable experience. The trains are frequently over capacity and they’re frequently late.

This costs people their jobs. It costs businesses contracts. It makes us all worse off. Lack of consistency in infrastructure decision making affects business confidence and puts off potential investors.

It tells potential investors that the UK is not a reliable nation. There will be businesses who have been planning for years of investing in Manchester. They have based their investment decisions on what successive governments have said was going to happen. We are now many years along from the initial announcement of HS2. What does that do to international confidence in investing in a place like Manchester?

It damages the confidence the local electorate has in its government too. HS2 was not, in itself, going to solve deprivation in Manchester or Liverpool. These are long-term, entrenched problems. But the cities of the north of England are poorer than they should be. They are not as productive as cities of comparable size in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

How much political damage will this wreak ahead of the election?

HS2 has never been a popular project, even in the cities that were set to benefit from it. Support from politicians has been vociferous, from the electorate, less so. But that is the case for almost every big infrastructure project.

When the M25 – London’s orbital motorway – was being planned in the 1950s and 1960s, many people hated the idea. They didn’t want to spend all that money on what they thought was a white elephant project. Now, though, no one would suggest we get rid of it.

With Sunak cancelling HS2, people may look at the flip-flopping, at the delays, at the promises made over successive years and think that they can’t believe anything this government says.

Whether that’s building Northern Powerhouse Rail or investing money in buses, trams, local train networks or better roads. The decision to cancel HS2 will not be popular. And this government only has itself to blame.

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