Since the announcement made by Rishi Sunak on Wednesday 4th October at the Conservative Party conference to cancel the second phase of HS2, much as been speculated about what this means for the Levelling Up agenda set to help correct the economic inequalities in the UK.
The proposed benefit as stated by Sunak is that ‘…every single penny…’ from the £36 billion saved by scrapping the Manchester leg of the project would go towards transport projects across the UK which includes resurfacing motorways and keeping the £2 bus fee limit in place. There has also been a transition from HS2 to Network North, a continuation of Northern Powerhouse Rail which was crafted in 2015 and promised to connect the northeast with the northwest. The issue with this is, although moving the funds to another northern based transport project makes sense and keeps the hopes of the proposed HS2 benefits alive, Northern Powerhouse Rail was contingent on the second leg of HS2 between Manchester and Birmingham being completed. Therefore, how can the moved focus onto Network North be feasible if it is so reliant on HS2? It also demonstrates how important creating strong transport hubs is in the North. Growing core cities such as Manchester and Leeds was meant to be a result of HS2 achieving this by connecting them to the Midlands and London.
From its initial inception, HS2 grew to become incorporated into the Levelling Up scheme, with David Cameron claiming that it would rebalance the economy of the UK. The Levelling Up campaign is designed to create opportunities for everyone across the UK. Public transport and infrastructure are a core focus of the campaign. Improved access to public transport is a factor that investors look for when deciding where to put their money. A lack of infrastructure- such as the withdrawal of HS2- makes the North a less desirable place to make an investment, which prevents economic growth and creates a cycle of deprivation. Indeed, the cancellation of HS2 might not have intended to prevent the regeneration of northern based economies and businesses, but it is a massive implication of it. It is very rare that government projects are monocausal and the evolution of HS2 demonstrates this. Stopping the second phase of HS2 means far more than not building a train-line between Manchester and Birmingham. It is reinforcing the notion that London is the beating heart of the UK and that economic activity can only ever be properly executed there. This is also an effect of Brexit, as since our departure from the European Union, the governments focus on growing economic activity has been moving further away from the North to coastal areas.
Economically speaking, ending HS2 doesn’t really save the government much money as the money is just being redirected into other transport projects. Moreover, it was projected that the Manchester to Birmingham leg of HS2 was going to create a larger investment return than the London to Birmingham leg so potentially, it has resulted in a financial loss. There is also an environmental lens that can be applied to HS2. By stopping the next phase, ancient woodlands, waterways, and hedgerows can be saved, which benefits both the human and animal population of the UK. A negative of this is, that without a high-speed network connecting the major northern hubs, it encourages the use of domestic flights and car journeys which have a negative environmental impact. HS2 was set to promote the use of the train, especially to businessmen, and with more people using the train, less would result to using more environmentally damaging forms of transport.
Whilst it is obvious to say that HS2 would not have been the miracle cure-all solution to the long-standing economic inequalities in this country, it definitely would have helped. Greater connectivity is needed to aid investment and boost the economic productivity of the North. All other elements aside, Levelling Up is an immensely important agenda in this country and little blows to socioeconomic equality like this, does push London and the surrounding area away from the rest of the country, making it even more difficult to bridge the gap.
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