The axing of the Northern half of HS2 is more than just a truncated railway line. It’s emblematic of a broader sentiment many of us in the North have sensed for a while: a consistent mismatch between political rhetoric and on-the-ground action.
The name “HS2” – shorthand for High-Speed 2 – had already set expectations around speed. Yet, as a marketer, I’ve always argued its branding has missed the mark and has helped create the crisis the PM is playing into. Beyond the allure of high speeds, the pivotal significance of HS2 was the ‘extra capacity’ it promised. The British rail system, particularly in the stretches around the North, has long been congested and disjointed. HS2 was the beacon of hope for easing this congestion and creating broader access to employment as workers in Greater London (which is about the same width as Liverpool to Leeds) enjoy on a daily basis. Starting the project in the North, rather than London, could have demonstrated a transformative commitment to this crucial region. Instead, the potential benefits now feel like mere echoes in empty stations.
The PM has just thrown away fifteen years of consensus and made future infrastructure projects are going to be so much harder. The HS2 project – initially designed to connect major cities in central and northern England, creating a new engine for the economy – seemed a step towards ‘levelling up’, a promise that now rings hollow with the scrapping of the Northern leg of HS2.
Reflecting on the past 13 years of Conservative Government, the trend is disheartening. Despite the rousing slogans of “Levelling Up” and building a “Northern Powerhouse”, the government’s tangible actions – or the lack thereof – have felt lukewarm at best. For business owners and residents in the North, this isn’t just about transport; it’s about recognition and inclusivity and ultimately, a genuine investment in our futures. The recent backtrack on HS2 feels eerily reminiscent of the Beeching cuts, where economic considerations trumped regional connectivity. Rishi Sunak has brought a similar managerial approach to this decision. Beeching’s Axe didn’t work nor with Sunak’s Axe.
Historically, the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, which were aimed at streamlining the UK’s rail network, led to the closure of many smaller stations and lines, disproportionately affecting the Northern regions and rural areas. This historical episode still resonates as a point of reference for failed policy actions that neglected regional connectivity for economic considerations. The ‘Network North’ proposition now faces the formidable task of undoing decades of infrastructural neglect while adapting to contemporary economic and social demands.
The scrapped extension of HS2 beyond Birmingham and the implied shelving of HS3 – which was envisioned to enhance east-west connectivity across the Pennines – accentuates the urgency for a well-thought-out ‘Network North’ blueprint. The proposition should aim to resolve not just the north-south divide, but also the intra-regional disparities in connectivity across the North. It should envisage a multi-modal transportation network that leverages both rail and road infrastructures, along with digital connectivity, which fosters economic integration, regional mobility and social inclusivity.
Future policies should prioritise a holistic, regional-centric approach rather than a disjointed series of projects. A coherent strategy should be formulated that interlinks various urban centres, industrial hubs, and rural communities within the North, facilitating a seamless flow of people, goods and information. A substantial financial commitment is indispensable, accompanied by a governance framework that encourages local stakeholder engagement, transparency, and accountability in decision-making and project execution. The money that was earmarked to the northern leg of HS2 is nowhere near enough to even begin to start tackling this problem, which is years if not decades in the making.
The ‘Network North’ proposition should serve as a platform for rethinking and recommitting to the North’s infrastructural needs. It should not merely be a reactive policy to the HS2 truncation but a proactive, well-structured initiative that seeks to genuinely ‘level up’ the North, fostering a sustainable regional growth trajectory that complements the national economic landscape. This necessitates a departure from the ad-hoc policy formulation to a more integrated, long-term planning ethos that aligns with the broader socio-economic aspirations of the North English communities and the UK at large.
Future decisions have to underscore the intrinsic value of the North of England, which should operate as the UK’s second economic engine. I don’t believe this decision does that. Economic prosperity doesn’t stem from a singular focus on metropolitan hubs like London. It burgeons when all regions are integrated, empowered and invested in. It’s time to genuinely prioritise the regions of the UK – whether that be the North of England, South Wales or Central Scotland – and not just in political speeches with catchy campaign slogans but with real, impactful actions.