The government is reportedly discussing scrapping phase two of HS2, which would connect Birmingham to Manchester. However, work already started on phase one of the rail line, which connects London to Birmingham. As a result, one of the country’s most expensive public projects will benefit the south and forego the north.
The Independent revealed on 14 September that prime minister Rishi Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt have discussed scrapping HS2’s second stage. Phase two would connect Birmingham to Manchester. The government has already spent £2.3bn on pre-construction work for phase two. However, the Independent reported that this money is now ” not recoverable even if it is cancelled”.
Scrapping further work on HS2 phase two will save up to £34bn, the government estimated. However, Royal Assent was given to part one of phase 2a – between Birmingham and Crewe – in February 2021. That will make it “hard to cancel it outright”, according to the Independent.
HS2 is supposedly the largest infrastructure project in Europe. In 2010, the proposed costs for HS2 were between £30.9bn and £36bn. By 2019, an independent review estimated the project would cost £106.4bn. Then, in October 2022, another estimate placed the final cost at more than £150bn, accounting for inflation.
Amid ballooning costs, the project has also faced setbacks and changes including scrapping the line to Leeds.
Prising wide the North/South divide
News that the government could scrap phase two led to outrage amongst political figures and the public in the North of England. Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said the news showed the government saw northern passengers as “second-class citizens”, adding:
The result? The southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North left with Victorian infrastructure. Levelling up? My arse.
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Some people on social media echoed the sentiment that it reinforces problems of the traditional North/South divide:
— Iain Docherty (@iaindocherty) September 14, 2023
The north has been shafted by this government on public transport. Leeds is the biggest city in Europe without a light rail system. Hs2 to Leeds and now to Manchester cancelled. You know what to do Northerners. We need a new govt and to hold them to developing the north. https://t.co/k1fINuDYHm
— Gruev Armada (@timmsy_ks) September 14, 2023
One person even provided an updated HS2 map showing what the line will look like if phase two is scrapped:
Behold! HS2 in all its glory! pic.twitter.com/Kjt5RgrG04
— Tim Chantler (@TimChantler) September 14, 2023
Meanwhile, actor Robert Lindsay pointed out how HS2’s money could have been better spent:
Amazing how much is needed to upgrade and repair our schools and universities,public buildings and indeed the entire rail network and yet they manage to find £120billion for #HS2 https://t.co/xydJK5sYsB
— Robert Lindsay (@RobertLindsay) September 6, 2023
Ecological and social destruction
HS2’s waste of public money and reinforcement of social divides has occurred against a backdrop of massive ecological and cultural destruction. A report by the Wildlife Trusts in January 2020 showed the line’s full route would destroy or severely harm:
- 108 ancient woodlands
- Five wildlife refuges of international importance
- 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest
- 21 local nature reserves
As a result, some people welcomed the news that the government might scrap phase two of the rail line. Chris Green of Friends of the Earth told ITV News that:
I think this is really, really brilliant news for all of the communities living to the north of the West Midlands… who are blighted every day and every night by the prospect of this particular scheme. We could be spending this money on really, really investing in our current rail network, making it fit for purpose, we could be investing in our bus network.
A government watchdog branded HS2 as “unachievable” in July.
Smash and grab
HS2 represents the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it is ecologically and socially destructive; on the other, it’s failing to deliver on the meagre transport benefits it originally touted. At an estimated £307m per mile of track, there are also huge question marks over the economic benefits it will bring to the country. On the other hand, its economic benefit to private profits isn’t in question.
Once again, the Tories have presided over a project that funnels massive amounts of public money into private hands. This has happened multiple times in the last few months alone, such as with the redundant Bibby Stockholm and cover pay for striking doctors that could have resolved the strikes in the first place. All of this is money that could have gone towards actual problems such as crumbling schools and hospitals.
There is a silver lining though: at least this time animals and the landscape might benefit from the government’s incompetence and malice.
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