Government still buying properties along HS2 route – despite scrapping scheme

<span>A tunnel is bored under the Chilterns on the HS2 leg to Birmingham.</span><span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
A tunnel is bored under the Chilterns on the HS2 leg to Birmingham.Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The government has paid more than £1m to buy properties along HS2’s northern leg since Rishi Sunak announced he was cancelling the scheme, the Observer can reveal.

The prime minister used his party conference speech in Manchester last year to announce he was axing the line that would have brought it to the city. It angered some senior Tories, while officials and industry insiders have since been scrambling to draw up plans for new capacity on Britain’s railways, which had been relying on HS2’s northern routes.

The three purchases completed along the Phase 2 line between Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester since Sunak’s announcement in October last year mean the taxpayer has spent £1.4m buying properties for a line that is no longer being built.

They were made under property purchase schemes set up to clear the path for HS2. Under the schemes, the state was legally obliged to follow through on purchases that were already being processed. Insiders said all three purchases had been “at an advanced stage” before Sunak cancelled the line.

The Observer understands that significant pressure is now being placed on officials to ensure at least some parcels of land along the line are sold off before the general election, in an apparent attempt to create a “political trap” for Labour and kill off the project. Labour has not yet revealed any solid plans for HS2 or an alternative.

Industry insiders believe the decision to kill off HS2’s northern leg was ordered as a way of forcing Labour to choose between revamping the project or sticking with the Network North scheme announced by Sunak in its place – a series of local transport upgrades that he claims has been funded from the former HS2 budget.

So-called “safeguarding” has already been removed from Phase 2a, which was due to end at Crewe and take significant capacity off the west coast mainline. It means there are no longer any legal restrictions on land along that route. However, selling land already bought by the state will be a much harder task.

The government has been warned by its own infrastructure adviser, Sir John Armitt, not to rush through land sales. He said cancellation of the line beyond Birmingham created a “real risk” that rail travel from the south to Manchester would become “even more congested”. Cancellation of the leg to Crewe is also expected to increase road traffic as there will be less rail capacity freed up for freight.

There is growing frustration among insiders that the government has ditched HS2’s northern routes while pledging to spend £11.5bn and 15 years upgrading the Transpennine line between Manchester and York – a project expected to provide three extra trains an hour.

A spokesperson for HS2 Ltd said: “These three property transactions all started prior to the Network North announcement in October. In the interests of fairness, and in line with our legal obligations, we are completing all purchases where the property owner wishes to proceed. This process has taken several months. In line with government advice, we’re now in the process of closing down the Phase 2 programme in an orderly fashion, while being mindful of the needs of local communities and the taxpayer.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Property acquisitions can take months, and the three property acquisitions finalised after 4 October were so far advanced that it would not have been fair on the owners to withdraw. We are continuing to develop a clear programme for selling land no longer needed for Phase 2 of HS2, ensuring our approach provides value for the taxpayer and fully engages with the people and communities affected.”