Sunak insists plans to reallocate HS2 funding will be ‘transformational’

The decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2 and put the money into local transport schemes will be “transformational”, Rishi Sunak claimed as the Government earmarked £4.7 billion of funding for the north and Midlands.

With a general election looming and the Tories desperate to hold on to red wall seats in former Labour heartlands, the Prime Minister gathered his senior team in northern England for a Cabinet meeting to highlight the transport funding.

The north of England will be allocated £2.5 billion and the Midlands will receive £2.2 billion from money previously earmarked for the axed high-speed rail line, but the funding will not be made available until April 2025.

The Government said it will go into a “local transport fund” targeted at smaller cities, towns and rural areas, which councils and unitary authorities will decide how best to spend.

But Henri Murison, chief executive of business group the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said the plans are simply a re-announcement.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m still kind of happy to receive this money in place of nothing but it is also coming alongside the fact that many of these same communities will not benefit from HS2 and we still haven’t got enough clarity on Northern Powerhouse Rail, which is still a very important and fundamental part of the North transport system.

HS2 network
(PA Graphics)

“We haven’t got the clarity out of the route that was supposed to be announced imminently and instead the Government, rather than going to the north-west, which I would have liked them to do and announced that they are definitely going to do Northern Powerhouse Rail, that it’s going to go from Manchester to Manchester Airport, through towards Liverpool, instead they come and re-announce something here in Yorkshire.

“I don’t fundamentally understand why on earth the cabinet is coming to simply announce something that they already told us about.”

Labour accused ministers of having the “brass neck” to speak about “transformation” to regional transport services after “countless broken promises to do just that”.

But the Prime Minister told BBC Radio York: “We could have carried on with a project that was going to cost well over £100 billion, take decades and have a very specific set of benefits, whereas I made a different decision.

“I said ‘I’m going to take that money, and instead I’m going to give it to local areas to spend on their local transport priorities’.

“And that’s already started to happen. So local authorities have already got money at the end of last year for more road resurfacing and potholes. They’re going to get more of that this year. We’ve already capped bus fares at £2.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper during a visit to the site of the HS2 project at Curzon Street station in Birmingham
Transport Secretary Mark Harper during a visit to the site of the HS2 project at Curzon Street station in Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)

“And today we’re announcing several years of funding that local areas are going to get for their local transport priority.

“So our plans are already delivering benefits to people and, I think, will be transformational for spreading opportunity, improving connectivity across the North and Midlands in a way that’s never happened before.”

The visit to Yorkshire and the Humber will be the first time Mr Sunak has held a regional Cabinet outside of conference season since he took office in 2022.

The last time ministers gathered outside of London was for emergency talks ahead of the announcement that HS2 would be scaled back at last year’s Tory conference in Manchester – the city most directly hit by the U-turn.

Mr Sunak was expected to use Monday’s Cabinet meeting to say that ministers and MPs would hold local authorities to account to ensure the transport fund is used appropriately.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper was also expected to update ministerial colleagues on the delivery of Network North – the Government’s overarching plan to replace HS2’s northern leg.

The Government says the new funding allocations will provide local authorities with long-term certainty over the amount they have to spend on transport services their communities need the most, for example expanding mass transit systems, filling potholes, roadbuilding or refurbishing bus and rail stations.

Mr Sunak and ministers are also to meet with communities, businesses and organisations to discuss their priorities for the fund and how their area can best benefit from the money.

Labour ridiculed what it described as a “back of a fag packet plan” and said communities are “sick and tired” of empty promises.

Shadow secretary for transport Louise Haigh
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said communities are ‘sick and tired’ of empty promises (Maja Smiejkowska/PA)

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: “The Tories have failed and local people are sick and tired of this Government taking them for fools.

“Only the Conservatives could have the brass neck to promise yet another ‘transformation’ of transport infrastructure in the Midlands and North after 14 years of countless broken promises to do just that.”