Impending cancellation of the flagship ‘levelling up’ had been in the news for days but minister had refused to comment on ‘speculation’, leaving the axing of Manchester’s HS2 line as the main headline in the prime minister’s party conference speech.
Not without irony, the party conference is being held in Manchester, in what was originally a railway shed.
Sunak condemned HS2 as “the result of the old consensus”.
He said that in the years since it was initially conceived, with spiralling costs and changes in travel patterns, “the facts have changed – and the right thing to do when the facts change is to change direction”.
In his first Conservative party conference speech as prime minister, Sunak also announced that responsibility for building the HS2 London terminus at Euston would be stripped from HS2 Ltd – “there must be some accountability for the mismanagement,” he said – and handed to a new Euston development corporation.
He promised that the £36bn saved from HS2 phase two would be spent instead on hundreds of other infrastructure projects, including a Network North east-west rail initiative, electrifying lines to reduce rail journey times between Manchester and Bradford to 30 minutes and Manchester to Hull to 84 minutes. He also promised government funding for a Leeds tram network and expansion of the Midlands Metro.
HS2 trains will still be able to go to Manchester, he said, but will travel on existing tracks.
Marie-Claude Hemming, director of operations for at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) said: “This is a dark day for the UK economy, and for everyone who has placed trust in successive UK governments to level up the country and close the north-south divide.
“While the prime minister has promised to reinvest HS2 money in alternative schemes, we as an industry know how unlikely this will be to materialise and impact communities in anything like the game-changing way that high speed rail would have delivered.
“Britain now lags far behind our competitors and will remain so due to this short-sighted decision. That the UK government can make such a decision without a democratic mandate – after the scheme has been supported by all parties throughout successive general elections – frankly beggars belief.”