So it’s official – after days of rumour and speculation, Rishi Sunak airily announced at the Conservative Party conference that the Manchester leg of the HS2 high speed rail line was cancelled.
I have written quite extensively about HS2 and the benefits it would bring to the North West and I don’t mind admitting it has taken me some time to calm down to a stage where I could write coherently after the announcement. It feels very much like the ending of that bastion of 1980s TV quiz shows Bullseye: “Look what you could have won…”
Background to the cancellation announcement
Why has Sunak taken this seemingly arbitrary decision? Ignore for now his spin about constantly increasing costs and value-for-money concerns (the southernmost phase 1 section of HS2 is actually only slightly over budget, is generally going to plan and the scrapped northern sections have stronger business cases). The cancellation has nothing to do with the national interest or economics and everything to do with internal Conservative Party politics.
Construction of the northern sections of HS2 had substantial public support. Sunak’s arbitrary cancellation of the project is falling on decidedly stony ground with voters he needs to retain if he is to have any chance of winning the next general election.
Rishi Sunak – 99 (political) problems
Sunak’s problem is that the Conservative Party is split, and furthermore that it is split in multiple ways. No longer just the traditional pro/anti-EU factions vie for attention but the (far) right of the party is firmly in the driving seat.
Splinters such as the Covid Research Group, the Northern Research Group as well as the rump of the European Research Group who Sunak may have felt he’d seen off earlier this year when the ‘revolt’ against his Windsor Framework fizzled out, all conspire to undermine his leadership. Sunak is a weak leader and a naïve and inexperienced politician – witness his PR disasters such as being fined for taking his seatbelt off whilst recording a promotional video, being unfamiliar with buying fuel for a (borrowed for PR purposes) car and his latest of cancelling a new railway to Manchester whilst speaking inside a former railway station in Manchester.
Sunak’s follow-up PR of claiming to take “long-term decisions for a brighter future” might look more convincing if he wasn’t:
- in an almost empty private jet symbolising perfectly the disconnect between his life of wealth and luxury and the daily lives of ordinary people
- still on the ground somewhere (note the tail fin of another plane visible on the left; the picture was clearly taken with Sunak’s plane not actually flying anywhere) and
- writing with the cap still on his pen.
Sunak in a panic
It seems Keir Starmer’s “inaction man” jibes against Sunak have hit a nerve. Sunak not only needed to placate the right wing of his party and the think tanks that fund and inspire them, but also to reinvent himself politically.
His new ‘candidate of change’ mantra, and the cancellation of HS2, are rumoured to be a result of recalling former Boris Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings. Certainly the wild thrashing of Sunak desperately throwing policies at the wall (or electorate) and seeing what sticks – ‘A’ level exam reform and a stealth ban on smoking were also announced at the Conservative conference – bears the hallmarks of the early Johnson years.
That the logical conclusion of his pitch – vote Conservative to get rid of the Conservatives – makes little logical sense obviously hasn’t occurred to him or his advisers. Or it has, but they’re desperate.
Sunak’s announcement of potential projects to replace HS2 under the ‘Network North’ banner was clearly intended to give Conservative MPs something to sell on doorsteps during the election campaign, yet it was further evidence of his political incompetence. It transpired that some of these projects weren’t in the North (Camelford bypass… in Cornwall), some had been constructed and opened years ago (trams to Manchester Airport passing the very conference centre where Sunak was speaking) and other projects weren’t actually funded. Transport Minister Mark Harper eventually had to admit that these were just ‘examples’ of what could be done.
How infrastructure projects are funded
Amidst all the hype of HS2 ‘costing £100bn’ and the government’s proposed ‘Network North’ with a budget of £36bn supposedly available from cancellation of HS2, we need to be wary of gaslighting.
HS2 phase 2 through to Manchester was due to be constructed from 2023 to 2035. The cost of building it and thus the borrowing to facilitate this would have been spread over this period and possibly longer depending on when train services actually commenced. The ‘£100bn’ would not have been spent in one go and annual budgets (and borrowing requirements) would have fluctuated over the construction period depending on the complexity of construction in that cost period.
The bottom line of this is that a single pot of money labelled ‘For HS2’ doesn’t exist within the Treasury and as such isn’t available to reallocate to other projects, as the government wants us to believe.
Serious questions of democratic accountability
Of particular note (and, on a personal level, outrage) is that a scheme authorised by parliament with substantial cross-party support can just be cancelled on a whim by a prime minister needing to revive his personal political fortunes.
The act of parliament underpinning the HS2 network gave authority to raise money and undertake construction but did not require this; nor did it ringfence funds to do so. To my mind this raises important questions of democratic accountability similar to how a narrow referendum victory was arbitrarily defined by then-prime minister Theresa May to mean the entire UK would leave the EU single market and customs union without any further consultation.
It is a serious flaw in our democratic systems that such decisions can be, and are, made by an overly powerful executive branch with little democratic oversight and with no motivation to consider the needs of the country when they are likely to lose the next election anyway. In other words, there is nothing to deter Sunak and the Conservatives from such scorched earth tactics when they are not only near certain to lose the next election but also to be out of power for a long period of time.
It has been suggested that this is likely to be a continuing strategy – for example profligate spending of tax revenues to hobble an incoming Labour government.
So, what now for HS2?
Future generations will curse Sunak for caving in to the right wing of his party. There isn’t much more we can do with the existing infrastructure to create capacity for more north-south trains and the ones we have are already becoming overcrowded.
The most important task for supporters of HS2 is to prevent the land being sold off. A petition has been started to this end as it will not be simple for a future government just to buy the land back. If the present government manages to sell the land off cheaply to its supporters who then sell it on at a profit to third parties, those future landowners will have a legal right to seek fair market value for future compulsory purchases.
That Labour have announced an enquiry into HS2 is promising and will hopefully deter backroom deals for sale of land along the route of the proposed railway. Also promising is Labour’s pledge to reform planning law – there needs to be a balance between the right of local people to have a say in development affecting their area but equally the nation has a right not to have major infrastructure projects held to ransom by narrow interests.
Those who wish to see the completion of HS2, not just to Manchester but to Leeds as well, and the piggy-back project of a new high speed east-west line linking Yorkshire with Manchester and Lancashire, should write to their Labour MPs or prospective Labour parliamentary candidates explaining just how strategically important HS2 is long term for getting traffic off roads and combatting climate change. Future generations will have to bite the bullet and build HS2 or something very close to it – there just isn’t an alternative.
The only questions are how long it will be delayed, how much more it will cost and how much the citizens of the North will have to suffer with inadequate transport links in the meantime.