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Off Track

Rishi Sunak criticised by former Tory PMs for scrapping major rail route plans

A high-speed railway line will now only connect London to Birmingham instead of travelling further northwards as intended.

FORMER TORY PRIME ministers have criticised incumbent Rishi Sunak for losing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” by cancelling part of a major transport project.

Sunak announced at the UK Conservative Party’s conference that he was scrapping the northern leg of HS2 — a plan for a high-speed railway line that would connect  northern cities like Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham and onwards to London.

Instead, the project will now only go between London and Birmingham, sparking anger in the cities further north.

Suank defied senior Tories and business leaders to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg, saying “the facts have changed” and the cost of the high-speed rail scheme had “more than doubled”.

Former Tory prime minister David Cameron said the decision would fuel the view that Britain cannot act for the long-term and is “heading in the wrong direction”.

Boris Johnson, another former Conservative prime minister, wrote “I agree” in response to Cameron’s scathing post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Sunak’s keynote speech in Manchester saw him make several announcements, including a plan to phase out smoking, in a bid to pitch himself as a politician delivering “change” despite his party having been in power since 2010.

He confirmed HS2 will run from Euston in central London to Birmingham but will no longer extend beyond the West Midlands, with Manchester among the areas missing out.

Instead, Sunak promised to use £36 billion of savings from scrapping sections of HS2 to fund a raft of other transport schemes. He told backers of HS2 that the “facts have changed” and there was a need for “courage to change direction”.

Cameron described the decision as the “wrong one”, adding: “It will help to fuel the views of those who argue that we can no longer think or act for the long-term as a country; that we are heading in the wrong direction.

“HS2 was about investing for the long-term, bringing the country together, ensuring a more balanced economy and delivering the Northern Powerhouse. We achieved historic, cross-party support, with extensive buy-in from city and local authority leaders across the Midlands and North of England.”

He said the announcement “throws away 15 years of cross-party consensus, sustained over six administrations, and will make it much harder to build consensus for any future long-term projects”.

Cameron said: “All across the world, we see transformative, long-term infrastructure projects completed or underway. They show countries on the rise, building for future generations, thinking big and getting things done.

“I regret this decision and in years to come I suspect many will look back at today’s announcement and wonder how this once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost.”

Labour mocked Chancellor Jeremy Hunt over the policy change by highlighting previous remarks he made while a backbencher.

Hunt wrote on Twitter in February 2020: “No HS2 = no ambition for our country just when the whole world is looking at us. Now is a time to be AMBITIOUS.”

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves highlighted the post and wrote: “How’s it going, Jeremy?”

Decisions taken by the Government risk making it harder for Labour to overturn the cuts should they secure power at the next general election.

Land earmarked for the HS2 routes now scrapped will not be protected for potential future expansion of the high-speed railway, the Department for Transport has confirmed.

Railway consultant William Barter described the decision as “ludicrous” and an act of “spite”.

Under a process known as safeguarding, land on those routes – including extensions to Crewe, Manchester and the East Midlands – was protected to stop conflicting developments taking place.

For Phase 2a – between the West Midlands and Crewe – safeguarding will be formally lifted in the coming weeks.

For Phase 2b – between the West Midlands and Manchester – safeguarding will be amended by summer 2024 to allow for plans under Northern Powerhouse Rail.

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin criticised Mr Sunak for his “pure electioneering” after his transport announcements.

The Labour politician told Channel 4 News: “This doesn’t work for north-to-south, it doesn’t work east-to-west, and what we’re seeing in this plan is a decade of rail replacement buses with electrification.”

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