The failure by the Government to guarantee the future of the HS2 line between Birmingham and Manchester has caused massive ructions. But the reality is that we have been here many times before. HS2 is no longer a transport project, it has become a symbol for failed long-term policy-making.
The costs of the HS2 project have long been an issue and have been challenged by many. It has been the subject of internal, external and parliamentary reviews but keeps being backed. The project now looks quite different to the one talked about in the past and frankly many have become confused about where it will start and end. Does it start at Euston or Old Oak Common (which most people do not know where it is) and does it go Birmingham, Crewe or Manchester? Does it have a Eastern leg anymore?
The changes are at least in part a consequence of the semi-regular reviews looking at the project and its costs.
All that uncertainty and confusion has led to an even greater focus on the money rather than the benefits of the project. Although those too are contested by many especially in a post-Covid world.
There is a tipping point with most infrastructure projects and HS2 is no different. Too much has taken place to stop the project reaching Birmingham but that appears to be the only certainly.
Even Labour, whilst supporting the project, is leaving itself some wiggle room. Whilst Pat McFadden, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, declined to commit to building the line in full, due to uncertainty over the costs.
Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh meanwhile said on X that:
"Labour are committed to delivering HS2 in full and maximising its economic benefits . But having crashed the economy the Tories now want to cut the north out altogether. Their incompetence and gross mismanagement are costing the north and the taxpayer dearly."
Labour are, in effect, attempting to turn the current uncertainly into an issue of the Government's failure to support the North of England.
So, HS2 is no longer a transport project, it has become symbolic of the economic divergence and a failure to deliver infrastructure projects. Whilst the private sector seems perfectly capable of cracking on with particularly energy projects, HS2 is doing the public sector down. Whilst Highways England may be getting on with the job of delivering road infrastructure, HS2 is becoming a by-word for government wobbles.
What does government now really believe infrastructure is for and the benefits that it delivers? Why the changes in policy position and what are the implications?
Making seemingly constant changes to a project of this scale, let alone potentially cancelling another part, will undoubtedly undermine investor confidence in the UK.
Plans, investments, and economic strategies have been developed with HS2 in mind. Scrapping it now could disrupt long-term plans, leading to significant challenges for businesses, cities and regions alike. It is not as simple as just stopping spending on one project. There is a long tail of ramifications.
The government's commitment to "levelling up" was tied to projects like HS2. The Government will need to explain how this potential decision impacts that vision and how it plans to mitigate the consequences.
As the government navigates these challenges, transparency and a clear vision for the future are key to maintaining investor confidence and sustaining progress towards a more balanced economy.
The reality is that no project is ever given a blank cheque. If the costs of HS2 cannot be managed then it will not reach Manchester. Whether the Conservatives or Labour are in office that will remain the case.
HS2 is no longer a transport project about it's benefits. Instead, it is now about the way in which we sell ourselves internationally, the way we plan and develop projects and whether we invest across the country. We cannot keep saying that the Olympics was delivered on time and on budget. That was a long time ago....