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HS2 cancellation: The North responds

Business and political leaders across the North have been responding to the cancellation of the Northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail link, which PM Rishi Sunak finally confirmed at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester today following a week of protracted, and sometimes painful, speculation.

Analysis from think tank The Institute for Public Policy Research has already revealed that if the North had received the same level of transport investment as London over the last decade, it would have received £86bn more than it actually has.

Zoë Billingham, director of IPPR North, said: “The government has played fast and loose with HS2 and scrapping the Manchester leg is a betrayal of the North. Transport is the backbone of rebalancing our regions. New promises heard today to redeploy HS2 funding – across the whole country – not only undermines levelling up but also lacks credibility.

“Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 are in the long-term interest of the country. This is a double blow for the North.”

Brabners is a major Northern legal firm with a department specialising in media law. It recently launched its True North network, bringing together leaders across Lancashire, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield to drive positive change.

Brabners CEO Robert White said: “Much of the North’s future potential – and closing the productivity gap – lies in harnessing its talent and generating inclusive growth through emerging industries. This can only happen with a long-term approach that transcends political cycles – including in the national approach to connectivity and infrastructure. Our own research highlights an increased appetite among UK and international funds to invest in the North but the uncertainty surrounding long-term decision making at a national level, and in this case the decision to abandon the Northern leg of HS2, has the potential to significantly impact that appetite.”

Bill Addy, CEO of Liverpool BID Company, which represents over 800 businesses within Liverpool city centre, said: “If there’s one thing we know in business it’s that confidence comes from delivery, a proven track record in service and getting the job done. A lot of promises have been made to Liverpool when it comes to rail, but we are yet to see any real delivery.

“After a year of chaos on the rail, the impact is felt on our high streets and our boardrooms, it has hit confidence and the city economy from tourism to manufacturing.We need viable and ambitious plans to support businesses across the North to help them continue to create jobs, to pay taxes and support public services. We have been offered no specific plans, no specific timeline and no promise of impact. We urge whomever has control of the budget over the next decade to put credible plans in place that are delivered.”

James Forrester, MD of Newcastle-based property developer, Stripe Property Group, said he was unsurprised by the latest U-turn. While he did offer qualified support for the PM’s stated plan to invest HS2 savings in alternative transport projects, given the government has just cancelled one major transport project it has spent much of its last 13 years in power showering praise on, he won’t be holding his breath for delivery: “Of course, bold plans remain to connect the country, but it’s fair to say that you’d be better off walking from London to Manchester instead of waiting on this Government to deliver on its word,” he said. “Yet another example of Westminster prioritising the prosperity of the capital, with little to no regard about the rest of us that form the United Kingdom.”

Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce director of policy Chris Fletcher echoed Forrester’s concerns over delivery: “HS2 was a major investment opportunity for the UK that would unburden a worn-out network already at over capacity; boost the country’s net zero ambitions and open up labour markets and job opportunities on a scale like never before,” he said. “Plus it was also a cornerstone of Northern Powerhouse Rail. Network North has to deliver all this and more and in a shorter timescale if this government is to have any credibility and successive government’s performance on this over the last decade has not been great.

Fletcher went on: “If the scale of what the PM announced is to be realised then there will have to be a huge investment in upskilling and training an army of workers for the challenge ahead. At present there are gaps and shortages in critical construction and engineering jobs, something HS2 has been good at resolving through apprenticeships and that will have to be stepped up unless we are to face yet more hold ups and delays in construction.”

Henri Murison, chief executive of Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said the decision was a “national tragedy – economically at least. That’s because in 100 years the economy of the north will be smaller because of this decision.”

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham added: “It always seems that people here where I live and where I represent can be treated as second class citizens when it comes to transport. It just proves there’s still so many people in politics, many of them in the Tory party, that think they can treat the north of England differently to the way they treat other parts of the country. It’s just so wrong.”

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