Residents and business leaders have slammed the government’s decision to scrap phase two of the HS2 rail project, saying it would be “the biggest two fingers to the North seen in decades”.
Fears that the northern leg of the much-delayed scheme was set to be axed were first revealed by The Independent on 13 September and Rishi Sunak and other ministers have repeatedly dodged questions over whether the high-speed railway service will go ahead in Manchester.
Now, sources close to the government have told The Independent that the line has been shelved for seven years as part of a bid to scrap the project in the long term.
While London and the Midlands are set to benefit from the improved transport connections across the region, many northerners feel they’re being left behind in a north-south divide.
Sacha Lord, 51, co-founder of the biggest nightclub in the UK, the Warehouse Project, and Park Life, one of the largest festivals in the north, said he was furious about the government’s backtracking on HS2 and sees it as a “complete betrayal of the north”.
“HS2 will be an absolute game changer not just for my events but things like, Co-Op live, a brand spanking new arena with a capacity of 24,000. It’s [scrapping it] the biggest two fingers to the North that I’ve seen in decades.
Mr Lord, who travels to the capital on a weekly basis, said: “HS2 was so welcomed for people like me who have to go down regularly. You take the Avanti West Coast now if it ever turns up, and it’s so expensive it’s actually cheaper to fly down than it is to take a train.”
Attending a conference for hotels and local businesses last week, he said businesses were very unhappy with the news: “We deserve exactly what London gets. Why do they get all the sweeties and we get thrown the scraps?”
Speaking days before the Tory party conference in Manchester where the prime minister is, according to sources, planning to confirm the scrapping of the northern leg on Tuesday or Wednesday, Mr Lord said that the “drip feed” of information had been poor and led to an ill feeling.
“They’ve turned the whole city against them,” he said.
Tim Langley, director of tech firm Go Live Data, shares Mr Lord’s concerns.
“This is possibly one of the worst decisions that the British government could make,” he said. “We use technology extensively in our work with Zoom and so on. But there’s nothing like meeting in the flesh and shaking hands. Business thrives on relationships and relationships are built face-to-face.”
Mr Langley said that the UK was already lagging behind other countries in Europe when it came to business investments and failing to invest in transport would not help.
“Jeremy Hunt is talking about encouraging business investments,” he said. “Well, it starts at the top. If the government aren’t investing in businesses, why would anyone else? Most importantly, if you do scrap HS2, what are you going to do instead?”
Residents in the north of the country have also shared their concerns if the next phase of the scheme doesn’t go ahead.
Elif Gulmen, a journalism student at the University of Sunderland said: “It feels like we’re forgotten sometimes and it’s very sad.” The 26-year-old said people relied on connections to Manchester to travel abroad as other airports in the north did not have as broad of a reach.
“Newcastle isn’t very well connected,” she continued. “If you want to travel to certain cities you have to travel to another city and that’s often Manchester.
“For us northerners, we have to tighten our laces before we get on the trains. It took me ten to twelve hours when I travelled to the airport for a holiday over summer.”
Shehanaz Hasan, 33, a mother-of-two who relocated to Kent after living in Preston spends a lot of time on trains travelling up north regularly to see her family. “I’m so disappointed that they’re scrapping HS2 to Manchester. I was really looking forward to the day I could travel there in an hour,” she said.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has said HS2 cuts would leave the north with “Victorian infrastructure” and has threatened to sue the government if the project is axed.
He is part of a coalition of five northern mayors who have signed a joint statement expressing their dismay at talks of the project being axed.
The statement said: “This government has said repeatedly that it is committed to levelling up in the Midlands and North.
“Failure to deliver HS2 and NPR will leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose and cause huge economic damage in London and the South, where construction of the line has already begun.”
When The Independent exclusively revealed Mr Sunak was in talks to scrap phase two of the project, Downing Street initially played down the claims, suggesting it was business as usual.
A government spokesperson said: “You would expect No 10 and the Treasury to regularly discuss large infrastructure projects. Spades are already in the ground on the HS2 programme, and we remain focused on delivering that.”
Since then Mr Sunak has repeatedly swerved questions around the project’s future.
On Monday, a spokesman for Mr Hunt did not deny plans surrounding axing the northern leg from Birmingham had been drawn up in the Treasury, carefully saying: “A decision will be announced in due course. It’s not the Treasury’s announcement ... it’s for the prime minister.”
No 10 said that some reports on the plans were “incorrect”, but did not set out which details were wrong and did not deny that a cabinet meeting would be arranged.
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