The UK government’s announcement to delay the completion of HS2 and mothball major road-building schemes due to budget constraints raises concerns about the Conservative government’s levelling up agenda.
This announcement is surely proof that the levelling-up agenda was always a cynical ploy to attract keep red wall voters from the 2019 election, and must call into question the government’s ability to deliver on its promises of investment in transport infrastructure in the North and Midlands.
HS2 Delay: A Blow to Levelling Up
Any delay to the completion of HS2 will harm the economy and certainly increase regional inequality, which goes against the levelling up agenda’s main aim, which was to promote economic growth and reduce regional inequalities! In response to the announcement, Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, stated that “tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic growth are dependent on this project. Delays pile costs up in the long run—ministers now need to come clean on precisely how much their indecision will cost taxpayers and the north.”
Industry leaders are rightly worried about the delay in HS2, saying that it could lead to higher costs and more delays in the future. John Dickie, CEO at BusinessLDN, has criticised the move, stating that “delaying construction of HS2 to save money is a false economy” and that it will ultimately increase costs and delay the benefits for people and businesses across England. The High Speed Rail Group echoed these concerns, stating that they were “alarmed” by the news and warning that it would only add to the total cost of the project. Meanwhile, Andy Bagnall, CEO of Rail Partners, emphasised the importance of large sections of HS2 not being delayed to meet Britain’s net-zero targets and maintain the country’s economy.
The delay in investment runs counter to the UK’s commitment to achieving net-zero goals, and it will hinder the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Furthermore, the postponement of construction for HS2’s link line to Manchester represents a significant setback to the levelling up agenda in that region. Labour politicians have criticised the government for asking the North to ‘pay the price’ for government failures, with tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic growth dependent on this project. The decision has been described as ‘a step in the wrong direction’ by the policy director at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Chris Fletcher, who argues that further delays, dithering, and uncertainty undermine any claim this government may have about taking levelling up seriously. The delay in construction of HS2’s link line to Manchester is not the only setback to the levelling up agenda in the North and Midlands. Manchester council leaders and campaigners have long advocated for an underground station instead of an overground station at Manchester Piccadilly to accommodate HS2. They argue that an underground station would be more beneficial for the city and the wider North, providing better connectivity and reducing disruption to the existing rail network. This highlights the importance of listening to local voices and taking their concerns into account when making decisions about major infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the scaling back of the TransPennine Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals is another blow to the levelling up agenda in the north of England.
The transport secretary, Mark Harper, blamed the delay on significant inflationary pressure and increased project costs, and announced that the government would delay building the Birmingham to Crewe leg of the HS2 project, which would go on to connect to Manchester. While the transport secretary blames these inflationary pressures for the skyrocketing costs of a major infrastructure project, it is worth noting that inflation should never catch governments out. While the government may argue that the inflationary pressures were unexpected and due to the conflict in Ukraine, it is no excuse for failing to properly consider the potential impact of inflation on the HS2 project. When undertaking ambitious projects, it is crucial for governments to consider the potential impact of inflation and take necessary precautions to mitigate its effects. Ignoring these pressures can result in project delays, funding shortfalls, and a host of other complications that can derail (no pun intended) even the most carefully planned endeavours. Therefore, it is essential for governments to include inflationary impact assessments in their planning processes and take proactive steps to manage inflation risk throughout the life of a project. By doing so, they can ensure that their projects remain on track, on budget, and able to withstand the potentially devastating effects of runaway inflation.
That the HS2 project was already behind schedule, also raises the question as to how much longer it will now take to be completed. The country and the regions really do need the project committed to at the highest level and a plan to get the work back on track. Mr. Harper, the transport secretary, has stated that the government remained committed to the project and aimed to deliver HS2 services to Crewe and beyond as soon as possible, accounting for the delay in construction. Indeed, the question arises as to whether the government would be willing to abandon the entire HS2 project to save money in the event of further negative economic impacts or inflation increases. Such a decision should not be taken lightly, as the project represents a significant investment in the UK’s infrastructure and has the potential to deliver important economic and social benefits.
Despite not providing exact dates or timescales, Mr. Harper’s assurance offers some relief to those concerned about the delay on the project’s completion. Nonetheless, it is important to continue monitoring the project’s progress, including its cost, to ensure that it remains on track and achieves its intended benefits. This government has a penchant for dilly-dallying and dragging their feet, making it essential to stay vigilant, and without any firm dates or timescales for the completion of the HS2 project, it will be challenging to hold the government accountable and ensure that the project stays on track. This lack of clarity increases the risk of further wasted costs (again something this government has a predilection for, remember the NHS COVID-19 app?) to both the environment and the economy (tax payer cash), as delays and cost overruns can have significant and long-lasting consequences. Therefore, it is essential for the government to provide more concrete timelines and commit to regular progress reports to enable proper scrutiny and accountability. Only by doing so can the government demonstrate its commitment to delivering this vital infrastructure project efficiently and effectively, while minimising any potential negative impacts.
Building for the Future: Balancing Progress and Sustainability
The Conservative government has a history of having trouble finishing big infrastructure projects on time and on budget. The Crossrail project in London, for example, was initially due to open in 2018 but is now not expected to fully open until May 2023, with the cost of the project ballooning from £14.8 billion to £19 billion. Similarly, the costs of the HS2 project have been revised multiple times, with the latest announcement of delays and mothballing of major road-building schemes adding further costs to the government purse. This really does call into question the government’s ability to deliver on its promises of investing in infrastructure to level up the country. This government appears to struggle with the timely delivery of projects, as if punctuality is an elusive concept that remains just out of reach. Without careful management and planning, these large-scale projects risk becoming a burden on taxpayers and a hindrance to regional growth.
The decision to delay HS2 and stop building major roads is not only bad for the economy, but also for the environment. The impact of such projects on the environment has long been a contentious issue. The HS2 project has faced constant criticism for the impact it will have on the environment, with concerns about the loss of ancient woodland and damage to wildlife habitats. A recent report by the Wildlife Trust titled ‘HS2 Double Jeopardy’ has highlighted how the UK’s largest infrastructure project, HS2, has significantly undervalued natural habitats and wildlife that are being destroyed during construction. The report suggests that HS2 Ltd.’s compensation measures for nature have been overvalued in contrast. Similarly, the controversial Silvertown tunnel in London has been criticised for its environmental impact, with campaigners arguing that it will worsen air pollution in the area. As the UK seeks to transition to a low-carbon economy, it is important that major infrastructure projects consider their environmental impact and ensure that they contribute to, rather than hinder, the country’s efforts to tackle climate change. As we embark on the challenging journey towards economic recovery, it is crucial that any government, this one or any other, listens attentively to the concerns of environmentalists and local communities alike. Striking a delicate balance between infrastructure improvements that fuel growth and development and safeguarding the delicate ecosystems and habitats that sustain us, will be the key to a sustainable and equitable future for all.
Rail Freight Revolution: Greener Transport for a Greener Future
An outdated and overburdened rail network that gives priority to passenger services over the movement of goods is also holding back the UK’s rail freight industry and demonstrates why on time delivery of HS2 was so important. This is a missed opportunity for the country, given that rail is the cleanest mode of freight transportation available. Rail freight could be a big part of the UK’s goal to have net-zero emissions, but only if the network is updated and made bigger to meet demand. By shifting more freight onto rail, we could reduce carbon emissions, cut air pollution, and take hundreds of thousands of lorries off our roads each year. The rail industry forecasts that there is a huge potential for growth in the sector, with intermodal tonnage predicted to double and overall freight tonnage set to increase by 32%. But without a significant investment in rail infrastructure, this potential will never be realised, and the UK’s efforts to become a net-zero economy will be severely hindered. It’s time for the government to act and give rail freight the priority it deserves, for the sake of our environment, our economy, and our future. Rail freight is crucial in the fight against climate change, as it is the lowest polluting form of freight transportation. Enabling more freight to travel by rail not only reduces carbon emissions but also removes hundreds of thousands of lorries from our roads, reducing congestion and improving air quality.
If we don’t put rail freight at the top of the agenda and put money into rail infrastructure, rail freight companies may be less likely to invest in cleaner, more sustainable locomotives. The shift to cleaner dual-use diesel and electric locomotives is critical in the fight against climate change, and we must ensure that rail freight has the capacity to support this transition. Road haulage will play a vital role in the final leg of the journey, transporting goods from terminals to suppliers and customers. While we should prioritise rail infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions, it’s important not to overlook the importance of road haulage in the supply chain. By improving local road networks and implementing smart strategies to reduce congestion, we can make road haulage more efficient and environmentally friendly, complementing the low-carbon benefits of rail freight. The development of regional hubs for freight will be critical for future growth on both rail and road. We also need to consider the time of day when lorries are allowed on the roads, avoiding peak times would not only benefit all users but also save costs and fuel and commuter frustration!
It’s time for a new approach that balances investments in both rail and road infrastructure to deliver green, sustainable, and well-paying jobs for all regions of the country. The future of our economy depends on it. Prioritising investments in rail and road infrastructure will help us achieve a low-carbon economy and reduce our impact on the environment. To do this, we must encourage the government to support rail freight companies to invest in cleaner locomotives while also recognising the important role road haulage plays in the last few miles from the terminal to the supplier or customer. By doing so, we can create a transportation system that benefits everyone and drives us towards a more sustainable future.
Broken Promises and Environmental Concerns: Is Levelling Up Just Talk?
So, the Conservative government’s promise to level up the North and Midlands is quickly becoming a farce. The decision to put off finishing HS2 and stop building major roads is just the most recent in a long line of Tory broken promises. Industry leaders can see it and are worried about the delay, and Labour politicians have criticised the government for asking the North to ‘pay the price’ for government failures. This delay in investment is also at odds with the UK’s commitment on meeting net-zero targets and will hamper the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The government’s levelling up agenda has faced constant criticism since it was announced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson a few years back, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is more rhetoric than reality.
As we move forward, it is imperative that the government listens seriously to local voices and considers the environmental as well as the economic impact of these and any future large-scale projects.
Big infrastructure projects do have the potential to bring about a positive change for our communities, regions, and the country, but only if we are willing to take a comprehensive approach. It is imperative that environmental, local, and economic impact studies are conducted and acted upon to ensure that we are making the most of these projects while mitigating any negative effects on the planet. Striking a balance between economic growth and protecting our natural resources will be essential in building a sustainable and eco-socialist future. Our communities have been yearning for it, our regions have been longing for it, and our country has been waiting for it – the competence and efficiency that our government promised. If the Conservatives continue to fail to deliver, they might want to consider conceding and handing the reins over to a more capable opposition via a general election. It’s time to give the people what they deserve – a government that can keep its promises and deliver the change we need.
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