Today Rishi Sunak made his much-anticipated speech at The Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Among other key areas of focus, it was the Prime Minister’s answers on HS2 which drew the attention. Following weeks of speculation regarding the northern leg of the major infrastructure project from Birmingham to Manchester, it was a significant decision not just for the West Midlands and the North West, but for the country.
The result confirmed what many had anticipated, with Sunak scrapping the route.
Yet, in its place he instead pushed a “renewed and revolutionised” transport model in the North of England and the Midlands, funded by the £36bn saved because of this decision.
For the Midlands he revealed that £9.6bn would be re-invested. This included funding the Midlands Rail Hub, connecting 50 stations and over 7 million people – doubling capacity and frequency, guaranteeing local transport funding for the new East Midlands Mayor, and transport funding for West Midlands City Region, while also committing to a new £2.2bn fund for local transport across all areas in the West and East Midlands outside the city.
He also highlighted that train lines and other stations would be re-opened, and road schemes would be brought forward across the midlands that would benefit numerous businesses and their employees.
To the PM, it was a decision that sacrificed the few – a line to Manchester– for the benefit others – hundreds of localised improvements that would drive wider spread positive change.
It was certainly an interesting angle to take amidst the criticism that has been directed towards the government over their dealings on the key HS2 project.
But during the speech he did confirm that the Euston to Birmingham line of HS2 would continue as planned, while also noting that HS2 may continue to Manchester, but along existing rail infrastructure.
For many this undermined his comments that it was the “wrong project”. If costs were managed better, or if the line had begun in the North, would it have continued?
Among those advocates for HS2 was West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street. The PM directly addressed the Mayor within his speech, acknowledging their differences in opinion but noting that he hoped they could work together positively moving forward.
Despite the positives positioned in the announcement, the U-turn however has been met with strong criticism in the North and Midlands. This includes the Mayor of the West Midlands who has expressed disappointment, though confirmed he is not resigning, after some speculation he would.
Meanwhile, Labour Leader at Birmingham City Council, Cllr John Cotton, labelled the announcement as a “kick in the teeth for the city and the region.”
The HS2 project was pivotal to many local leader’s and council’s ambitions in the Midlands and further North – attracting business, investment and more. To be promised one thing and get another has angered many who believed that this could have truly helped level up the whole country. Instead, promises that, while welcomed, fall short of that expected from the start.
This decision now poses a direct challenge to the Labour Party nationally, which will now have to decide if it will cancel these new transport plans and return to funding phase 2 of HS2, or offer a fresh alternative that moves away from both.