Northern leaders have said they feel “cheated” by the Government’s announcement that HS2 will be delayed, with some suggesting it symbolises the death of the levelling up agenda.
The high-speed rail link between Manchester and London, which has already faced years of delays, will be pushed back by at least another two years, Transport Secretary Mark Harper confirmed on Thursday.
Blaming increased costs, Mr Harper said the Government had no choice but to “rephase” construction of the northern leg of the project and would aim to deliver services to Crewe and the northwest “as soon as possible”.
Tony Lloyd, the Labour MP for Rochdale, Greater Manchester, told i: “I’m really angry about this HS2 decision. It should have begun in the north and then continued to the midlands.
“We don’t particularly need a new line between Birmingham and London and if that’s all HS2 becomes we will have been cheated.
“And we’ve been cheated already because I will be long gone before the first train pulls into Manchester.”
The delay is the latest blow to HS2 in the north, with the Government having previously decided to scrap the eastern leg to Leeds and downgrade its Northern Powerhouse Rail plans.
Some of the most deprived towns in the north such as Rochdale have also repeatedly missed out on millions of pounds from the Levelling Up Fund.
“Levelling up isn’t some £30m scheme, it’s nice to have – it’s probably nice to have in Surrey as well, levelling up is about housing, education, skills and training,” said Mr Lloyd.
“I just think levelling up is becoming an irrelevance and that could be toxic for the Tories.
“It was very Johnsonian, it was typical of him, ‘let’s come up with a slogan and put the reality in afterwards’, I think Rishi Sunak is probably quite embarrassed by it.”
HS2 splits opinion among Conservative MPs in the north and Midlands.
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, described the two-year delay as a “great disappointment” and added: “What is clear, however, is that the rephasing and remodelling work has to be done at breakneck speed so any delays can be kept to a minimum.”
But Tory Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, told i: “I’ve long said that HS2 is a waste of money, delivering nothing for Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.
“HS2 is now a multimillion-pound infrastructure project for the benefit of London and the South that’s costing us investment in transport here in the north.
“Savings made from this delay should instead fund dedicated northern infrastructure – making sure the north has the same standard of infrastructure that already exists in places like London and Birmingham.”
Mike Ross, the Lib Dem leader of Hull city council, said the latest HS2 delay is “an indication of a government running out of steam, out of ideas and its ability to do things.”
He added: “I’m not normally one to run to the ‘this wouldn’t happen in the south’ argument, but I do wonder if the South East had been facing this situation whether more effort would have been made to keep it going.
“Regardless of your views of HS2, the decision to scale it down or cut it back is just going to undermine its viability all round which is not good for anybody.”
Hull has also missed out on bids for levelling up funding and Mr Ross said there is some fatigue at having to keep submitting applications for various pots of cash.
Meanwhile, recent research showed large disparities in the core spending power of councils, with the poorest five authorities all in the north of England – namely Blackpool, Knowsley, Liverpool, Kingston upon Hull, and Middlesbrough.
On Friday, Mr Ross wrote to the Education Secretary to ask the Government to review the threshold for Free School Meals so that an extra 11 per cent of families in Hull can receive it. The number of children receiving Free School Meals has increased from 8,800 to 14,500 since 2018 but the council would like to increase the provision to all families in receipt of Universal Credit.
The scheme would cost just £2.5m but the council says it doesn’t have the resources to cover such expenditure.
John Blundell, the Labour councillor for regeneration in Rochdale, said although the town has lots of bids “ready” for different schemes, the Levelling up Fund, where most projects have a maximum budget of around £20m, is merely a “sticking plaster.”
“That money doesn’t help the underlying issues,” he told i.
“What the Government needs to do is look at things like Atom Valley [the Mayoral Development Zone planned for Rochdale, Oldham and Bury].
“What that does is bring together councils, businesses, developers – it’s a long term answer that will produce genuine levelling up.
“HS2 – I’m for it, but for me it’s always seemed like a southern answer to a northern problem.
“I’ve never completely bought into the argument that we’re not productive enough, we’ve got a lot of social issues, urban decay, but ‘if we were just a bit closer to London it would be better’.
“There are five stations – would those places rather have a station or £20bn each?
“The Government doesn’t have a grip any more on what is success and what isn’t any more. They don’t know where were going as a country and that’s why we’re stalling.
“Levelling up was never possible in one Parliament, Boris Johnson promised revolution with Brexit and levelling up and it wasn’t achieved was it?
“It’s just another set of shit that a politician comes out with.”