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Infrastructure blog

HS2 in the spotlight at Conservative Party Conference 2023

11 October 2023

The ICE attended this year’s Conservative party conference in Manchester to promote the institution’s work and participate in infrastructure debates.

HS2 in the spotlight at Conservative Party Conference 2023
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelled the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, promising to reinvest “every single penny” in hundreds of new transport projects across the country. Image credit: The Conservative Party/Flickr (licensed under CC by 2.0 Deed)

Political parties often have a slogan to sum up their messages at party conferences.

Theresa May had ‘opportunity’ emblazoned in block capitals, Boris Johnson had ‘get Brexit done’, and Liz Truss’s refrain last year was ‘getting Britain moving’.

The main announcement in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's speech this year – under the slogan ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’ – was the cancellation of the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2.

In its place, Sunak confirmed that £36bn of HS2 funding would be reallocated to hundreds of smaller transport projects.

The decision comes after a multitude of changes to the original design of HS2.

The eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds was abandoned in 2021, and delays to the Birmingham to Crewe leg and pausing of work at the Euston terminus were confirmed this March.

Here are the top takeaways for infrastructure from the Conservative party conference.

HS2 cancellation dwarfs other announcements

HS2 has constantly been plagued by reviews, cost overruns, delays, downgrades, and cancellations since it was given the green light in 2012.

Speculation and indecision over HS2 dominated the atmosphere at the conference.

It led to some awkward moments for ministers in panel debates and interviews in the days before the announcement finally came.

Sunak confirmed that Euston will remain the London terminus for HS2, rather than Old Oak Common six miles outside of central London. However, this depends on a substantial proportion of the cost being met by private funds.

The design for HS2’s Euston station has been further scaled back. Responsibility for redevelopment will sit with a new development corporation, which will also aim to deliver up to 10,000 new homes on the site.

The prime minister is correct that HS2 has proved much more expensive than planned, and no one project should be immune from such a verdict.

But the framing of the announcement to cancel the northern leg as part of long-term decision-making is difficult to grasp.

Stop-start approach benefits no one

As the ICE has explored, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many uncertainties about future travel patterns.

However, the underlying demand drivers behind transport usage remain: a growing and ageing population, the need to decarbonise transport infrastructure, and the need to address regional inequalities.

The scrapping of the northern leg of HS2 means that the much-needed connectivity, capacity and decarbonisation improvements required on Britain’s transport networks – and the benefits for people, communities and businesses that these create – won’t be seen for quite some time.

As the ICE pointed out in a statement on the cancellation, the stop-start approach the UK takes to major infrastructure benefits no one.

Long-term plans supported by evidence, long-term thinking on financing options, and robust and consistent policy are crucial to achieve desired outcomes.

Changing direction and switching projects delays businesses and communities from benefitting from infrastructure investment.

These positive outcomes are how success should be measured, not just by lowest cost to deliver. Indeed, ICE polling has shown the public wants to hear more about the benefits of major infrastructure projects.

The cancellation of the northern leg – and the problems that have dogged HS2 more widely from its inception – provides an opportunity to learn lessons so this situation is never repeated.

Reallocating transport funding into ‘Network North’

The prime minister said £36bn from HS2’s cancellation would be reallocated through its Network North plan, most of which is directed at the north of England.

The money is due to be spent between 2029 and 2040.

Some commitments are new, or at least resurrected, including better rail connectivity between Manchester and Bradford, full funding for the Midlands Rail Hub, and reopening the Don Valley line in South Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, an enormous £8.3 billion has been allocated to maintenance via pothole filling. Not all the funding or commitments are new, however.

Many are projects already identified in the Integrated Rail Plan, or where feasibility studies have already been carried out.

Gaps are already starting to appear in the long list of commitments: one announcement is to extend Greater Manchester’s Metrolink to Manchester Airport – a project that was completed 9 years ago.

The Prime Minister has since admitted that the list of projects is “illustrative” rather than fully confirmed.

Governments must think longer term

It’s naïve to think that if the UK switches its focus to different transport projects, the same challenges that made HS2 so flawed in the end won’t rear their head again.

Without clear timeframes for delivery, the public will rightly be sceptical as to whether the reallocated funding will make a difference to them – or will even see the light of day.

Sunak needs to set out exactly how he will redirect the £36bn previously earmarked for HS2. This includes the objectives that sit behind this spending and why those projects announced have been chosen.

The ICE has set out the need for a coherent and long-term framework for transport policy: a National Transport Strategy which could end the stop-start approach to investment and picking of pet projects.

The government must move away from selecting projects or programmes based on political expediency and instead set out a coherent and long-term framework for transport investment to guide decisions.

Announcements on EV charging and energy

Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced a new 30-point ‘Plan for Drivers’ to benefit car users.

This included exploring measures to speed up the installation of charge points for electric vehicles, which the National Infrastructure Commission has highlighted as having slow progress to date.

Energy pledges by the new Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary of State Claire Coutinho included:

  • A nuclear roadmap to be published later in the autumn, focusing on small modular reactors (SMRs). This followed the announcement that six companies are through to the next stage of the government’s SMR competition.
  • Regulations will be eased to allow for simpler installation of solar panels on industrial buildings and warehouses.
  • An £80 million fund for insulating social housing.

In his speech, the prime minister reiterated that his announcements from last month on scaling back net zero policies were “pragmatic and proportionate” in the face of potential public backlash.

This is understandable – people need to be engaged in the net zero transition. What’s currently missing is a plan for how to do so.

Without this, the UK risks missing its carbon reduction targets, something that the Climate Change Committee warned of only a few months ago.

Find out more

The ICE will also be at the Labour party conference, and we will be sharing our thoughts on the debate there in the next week.

The ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure (APPGI) will soon begin a programme of work on public engagement and net zero to better understand how to find solutions to public behaviour change.

Contact [email protected] if you want to find out more.

Read our key takeaways from the 2023 UK Lib Dem conference.

  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE
  • Duncan Kenyon, public affairs manager at ICE