How the Tories destroyed a country: the end of levelling-up

After months of dithering and delay, Sunak last week announced the cancellation of HS2. The decision confirms that the last 13 years of Conservative Government have been a failure. Originally a Labour project, the Conservatives continued the project recognising its potential to transform not just travel, but the entire economic geography of the United Kingdom. It enjoyed wide consensus across the political spectrum through the Cameron and May eras, backed by strong industry evidence that it was

Oct 11, 2023

By Jason Lowe

After months of dithering and delay, Sunak last week announced the cancellation of HS2. The decision confirms that the last 13 years of Conservative Government have been a failure. Originally a Labour project, the Conservatives continued the project recognising its potential to transform not just travel, but the entire economic geography of the United Kingdom. It enjoyed wide consensus across the political spectrum through the Cameron and May eras, backed by strong industry evidence that it was the only way to fix our broken transport network.

Electioneering over evidence

Of course, the evidence-based approach did not necessarily translate to the electorate, who may understandably believe the rhetoric over what the evidence shows. The reasons why HS2 is needed are well documented – and the reasons why upgrading alone is a flawed argument have been explored over and over again. We know, therefore, that the announcement from Sunak to focus on upgrades will not deliver the transformative effects that the north demands. Yes, a fully electrified Transpennine line is welcome, but this has been promised for decades – and will only result in a different power source rather than the higher capacity that new lines would bring.

The decision also desperately ignores the evidence on decarbonisation in another attempt to dump the green agenda in an attempt to win votes from climate change deniers, as if the planet can afford more dithering from politics. High-speed rail offers emits just 6g per person per km, compared to 41g for conventional rail and 254g for the type of short-haul flights that high-speed rail would have replaced.

What it means for the north

So let’s get to the meat of this. The north has been screwed over, again. While the South East has been gifted HS1 (Eurostar), Crossrail (Elizabeth line) and now the part of HS2 already under construction to Birmingham, the north is told to be happy with upgrades of existing track and road resurfacing. Sunak has already indicated that he plans to sell off acquired properties on the route and part of the HS2-site at Euston for housing, salting the Earth to ensure that no future Government is able to build the full route in future. The Conservative’s approach to transport in the north is incomparable to their approach in the south, which enjoys increasingly European-levels of transport quality.

At least in our lifetimes, the north will not be able to enjoy high-speed rail between its cities or rail-based alternatives for travel to mainland Europe. Much focus is given to the twenty minutes to be saved between London and Birmingham, but this discounts the real benefits of HS2 which, with Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) that shared track with HS2, would have connected York, Leeds, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Preston with new tracks – bringing down journey times, but more importantly unleashing capacity for both more fast and local services to places like Wakefield, Huddersfield, Stoke-on-Trent, Rotherham and Warrington. The unleashed capacity would have allowed closed rail lines to re-open with the freed-up space at existing stations; Birmingham New Street’s released capacity allowing for increased services into Wales. None of this will now happen. Yes, our cities will continue to suffer slow and unreliable connections between them – but with the tracks continuing to be filled with those services, there will be no scope for northern towns to enjoy improved rail service.

Replanning, again

All of this replanning will of course take time. 15 year’s worth of work is now wasted and we will need several more years to pay consultants and planners again to work out how ‘Network North’ can work. Given the evidence has proven upgrades will not work, the conclusion is likely obvious and will effectively lead to no change from the network we have now. Cynics may argue this is known by Sunak; that he is making a short-term electioneering decision by kicking the can into future governments’ territories. 

We had a plan over ten years ago – HS2 and NPR were funded, and it could have been delivered before the Truss crash. But the then Department for Transport decided to delay the project, costing more in consultant and agency fees – all while inflation continued to rise. The fallout of this was packaged as the ‘Integrated Rail Plan’ – effectively a stepping stone between the full commitment promised under Cameron/Osborne and the full cancellation enacted by Sunak. Each time the Conservatives have interfered it’s cost us, the taxpayer, billions more. Spare a thought for civil engineers who have spent endless weeks playing catch-up to constantly changing, ill-informed Government plans – only to find out their career’s work is now worthless.

Brexit

The problem, really, is that HS2 is a project for a different Britain. It’s a project that was born out of the boom times of our EU days, when our cities were increasingly seen on the European map and our economy was growing. The EU agenda promoted the Trans European Transport Networks (TEN-Ts), of which HS2 formed a part of, and the urgency to invest in rail to tackle the climate emergency was pushed. High-speed projects were eligible for European funding to assist national Governments and funding could be spread across different pots rather than all being on Westminster’s back.

We are no longer in this position. Perhaps Sunak is right to recognise that Brexit Britain has failed. The ‘old consensus’, in his words, is no longer plausible thanks to the divisive agenda the Conservatives have driven through British society. Brexit made us more divided than ever and has made all of us poorer. We cannot afford flagship projects any more and there is a reduced rationale for them. With the Conservatives in charge, there is no longer a green agenda pushing for it; Sunak announcing much of the money will instead go towards a multitude of road projects. The transit projects that are mentioned have been promised and cancelled before; trams for Leeds, Transpennine electrification and a new station for Bradford– though before, they were promised alongside HS2 not instead of. 

A Poorer Britain

The UK is well and truly back to the 1970s with a struggling economy and a Government focused on road investment in the north. It’s notable that Sunak claims to want to save money, yet spend the same budget on less-beneficial projects. His plans for road projects will cost more than the entirety of the cancelled Phase 2 to the North West, East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. This is all for short-term gain to fill potholes on roads we already have – not a game-changing levelling-up project like HS2. 

The economic cost to the UK of not building HS2, NPR and mass transit in Leeds will eclipse the cost of those infrastructure projects in the long term. Other comparable economies starting building their high-speed rail networks decades ago and are now reaping the benefits. Britain’s short-term attitude towards infrastructure is ultimately why other countries continue to overtake us; most of our economic success still sitting on the laurels of long-term Victorian infrastructure investment.

Conservative inflation skyrocketed HS2’s costs and their poor project planning will ensure the UK is well and truly broken into two halves. In building HS2 only to Birmingham, the Government has set out its plans to promise the north-south divide to the next generation. In the desperate search for a positive to end on, perhaps this widely-recognised exploitation of the north might just help annihilate the Conservative’s ‘Blue Wall’ at the next election – with a hope that a new Government might have some gumption.