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HS2’s demise may feel like a predictable betrayal as Rishi Sunak cancels the trains of the future | Business News

Appropriately, the railways were not running in Manchester on the day Rishi Sunak cancelled the trains of the future.

A strike left Manchester Piccadilly quiet while up the road, in the conference centre that occupies the Victorian grandeur of the old Manchester Central station, the prime minister tried to ensure high-speed rail will never get there.

His pitch was to trade in the 14-year-old cross-party promise to deliver a new line to the city – part of the “old consensus” he decries – for a series of smaller regional and local links using the £36bn saved on HS2.

The anger and dismay that greeted the news, from industry groups to former prime ministers, was to be expected.

HS2’s history of overspending and mismanagement may make it hard to love but, whether the PM likes it or not, there is political and business consensus north of Birmingham that it was crucial to permanently bridging the north-south productivity divide.

Sunak may have got a better hearing had his new plan, Network North, not been the second rail plan for the north of England in as many years. (You know what they say, you wait ages for a transport blueprint, then two come along.)

When Boris Johnson amputated the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds in 2021 it was done under the cover of the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and the Midlands, promising £54bn of local and regional transport projects.

If that sounds familiar, some of the detail was too, including a promise to electrify the TransPennine line.

Confusingly, Sunak’s plan also includes projects ruled out two years ago, including the electrification of existing line into Hull.

A little consultation may have helped too.

The 40-page document rushed out by the Department for Transport shortly after the PM’s speech has the whiff of the hotel photocopier about it, and there are reports Network Rail was not consulted at all.

Read more:
HS2: What’s next for transport in the north?
The HS2 revelation could not be more disruptive for PM

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Transport Minister Huw Merriman defends his position on HS2’s northern link to Manchester being scrapped

These local projects will doubtless be welcome. Bradford has long been marooned as a terminus, crying out for the £2bn new station and through line it is now promised.

The value-for-money case for these projects will also be easier to make, given their relative cost and how much untapped potential lies in northern towns and cities.

This also may not be the last word for HS2.

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Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has criticised the way he feels the city has been treated

Its supporters will fight hard to ensure the legislative framework survives, enabling Labour to pick up the pieces should they win the next election.

To defy them, and amend the HS2 bill currently in parliament, Sunak will need the support of 60-odd members of the Northern Research Group of MPs, whose price will be turning the vague promise of east-west rail from Liverpool to Hull into concrete plans.

Beyond Westminster there will also be a cost. Sunak’s habit of undoing industrial policy for short-term electoral gain can only undermine the UK’s credibility.

HS2 has hit the buffers weeks after a five-year easing of the phase-out of new electric vehicles left automotive giants Ford openly critical, and many others wondering where they stood.

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The failure to set a realistic price in last month’s offshore wind auction, generating no new capacity, did the same to the energy industry.

To the people of Manchester, boarding trams as Conservative delegates scurry out of a city in which new skyscrapers loom over the remnants of past industrial glories, HS2’s demise may feel like a predictable betrayal.

To the businesses and investors tempted to join them, it may signal a country that has neither the ambition to plan for the future, or the will to stick to a plan when it does.

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