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The dismemberment of HS2 and the end of Tory rule?

Updated: May 23

High-Speed 2 (HS2), the high-speed rail network connecting major cities in the United Kingdom, has been a contentious project that has spanned multiple governments. Its dismemberment and scrapping has come to symbolise the culmination of the Conservative Party's 13-year rule in the UK and a mandate to govern which has run out.

The Origins of HS2

The idea for HS2 can be traced back to the early 2010s when the Conservative-led coalition government of David Cameron (2010-2015), recognized the need for a high-speed rail network to alleviate congestion on existing routes and boost economic growth. The proposed line would connect London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, promising faster and more efficient travel for passengers and freight. This vision was presented as a catalyst for regional development and economic rebalancing.

The Face of "Levelling Up"

HS2 became a central piece of the Conservative Party's "levelling up" agenda, particularly under the Premiership of Boris Johnson (2019-2022), and notably, with Rishi Sunak as Chancellor. 

Promising to bridge the economic gap between London and the rest of the UK, the government argued that HS2 would bring economic opportunities to regions outside the capital, create jobs, and stimulate investment in neglected areas. It was touted as a symbol of commitment to addressing regional disparities and boosting connectivity.

However, critics argue that the "levelling up" promise remains unfulfilled, including the mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham, as many regions still grapple with economic challenges and infrastructure deficiencies. Mr Burnham went as far as to say the scrapping of HS2 means that in the complex of the north-south divide, the North will travel in “second-class citizens”. 

The Controversy

HS2 has faced fierce opposition from environmental activists, local communities, and budget-conscious policymakers. Critics argue that the environmental impact of the project, including deforestation and disturbance to wildlife habitats, outweighs its potential benefits. Protests have erupted, with some even resorting to legal action to halt construction.

Local communities along the proposed route have expressed concerns about noise pollution, property value depreciation, and disruptions to their way of life. The project's promise of improved regional connectivity has been met with scepticism, as some fear it will mainly benefit commuters travelling to London rather than bolstering local economies.

The Price Tag

One of the most significant sources of contention surrounding HS2 is its staggering price tag. This is the factor that Rishi Sunak is clinging onto for dear life.

 When it was considered in 2009 by the Labour Government of Gordon Brown it was estimated at £37.5 billion. When George Osborne began to frame it as his contribution to lift up the “Northern powerhouse” it was estimated at £55.7 billion according to reuters.  However following in the chaotic years that followed, scarred by Brexit and COVID-19 and a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, The project's costs have skyrocketed, with recent estimates exceeding £105 billion. 

Sunak’s message, and in the end, his final pre-election plea is that this money is better reinvested into the North and its transport infrastructure. During his landmark speech at the Conservative Party conference, he pledged £36 billion for hundreds of new projects, as the Transport Secretary Mark Harper applauded and cheered. 

In fairness to the Prime Minister, this may indeed be the tough economic decision that had to be taken. We should look forward with intrigue to how Starmer’s Labour responds, given Rachel Reeves’ grapple on Labour economic promises.

The emblem of failure

However, the appropriate metaphor for Sunak’s decision is taking a bullet from his mate's gun. 

HS2 was the face of levelling up, and the legacy of 13 years of failed Tory rule. 

It is the final stop of their mandate to govern the United Kingdom. 

Image: Rishi Sunak

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