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The Tories’ HS2 U-turn is environmentally reckless

By Natasha Coyle

If the Conservatives really were serious about levelling-up and business investment, HS2 would be a no-brainer.

As a born and raised East Midlands girl, frequent train travel has been the norm for me. The East Midlands are incredibly well-connected. I can live in a quaint village far away from the craziness of the capital, but still commute into London either for work or pleasure. And current HS2 plans allow that future for many more Midlands residents. But the Conservative government’s failure to commit to completion of HS2’s route beyond Birmingham and the East Midlands – due to increasing costs – is yet another example of Westminster forgetting that the rest of the UK exists above the Watford Gap. 

Their failure to commit to the next leg of HS2 falls in line with Rishi Sunak’s latest policy announcement on the purchasing of fossil fuel cars. Sunak announced last month that he would enact a five-year delay in the ban on sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

Sunak also failed to commit to answering questions posed by BBC North West’s Annabel Tiffin on whether HS2 is value for money. Sunak deflected persistent questioning, stating that: “the reality of HS2 is that the costs have doubled since it was originally budgeted for in 2021.” HS2 has spent £3.4 billion on the project already, with £600 million being funded from the public purse. 

The UK has a total population of 67.7 million as of 2023, 40.8 million of those people are motorists. Whilst over 60% of the UK’s population are drivers, is the country’s car-dependence a result of the unreliability of the railways? Regular rail strikes have forced commuters to rely on cars and other forms of transport, including myself. The rail strikes in Christmas and New Year saw me fly short-haul from Birmingham to Glasgow. And the most recent rail strikes in September and October meant that instead of getting the train to watch the Leicester Tigers play, I drove. 

When over 70% of transport-related carbon emissions come from cars and only 1.8% stems from rail travel, the Conservative government’s non-committal to the northern leg of HS2 and Sunak’s paradoxical environmental policy shift shows that the Conservative’s priorities align with the 60% of motor users rather than thinking about long-term environmental concerns. And appealing to this 60% is a stretch; it’s unlikely 40 million people will vote Tory solely based on a regressive environmental policy. Whilst traditional Conservative ideology supposedly triumphs individual empowerment, failing to invest further into public transport will likely result in a long-term bill paying for environmental issues in the future, and fails to give choices to consumers. A motorist should have the choice to drive or get a high-speed train. 

Behind Sunak’s vehicle pun in his pledge to slam “the brakes on the war on motorists” is a fear of spending that dominates government policy. The same goes for Labour’s current policy, after Pat McFadden, Labour’s campaign coordinator, declined to commit to building the HS2 rail in full, due to the uncertainty of costs. Delivering on the original promise of a high-speed rail network will in the long-term benefit the UK’s economic and environmental prosperity. 

Justine Greening, Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Transport in 2011-12, discussed her thoughts on HS2: “[Sunak] has gone down a route on HS2 that has caused a row in the party […] he should confirm that it’s going ahead. The whole point of the strategy was to connect the wider country to high-speed rail. It would be the equivalent of saying, ‘Let’s just do the motor system to Birmingham.’ The opportunity cost of not doing it is the potential and economic growth that is unlocked by getting on with this. If this attitude was taken in Victorian times, we wouldn’t have the rail network today if people said ‘Oh, that’s quite expensive, why do we need that?’” 

While the backdrop of the cost of living crisis has undoubtedly tempted the Tories to enact spending cuts, as the party supposedly best placed to represent business interests and needs, can’t they see that HS2 is a long-term investment, both economically and environmentally? 

If the UK is aiming for a greener future, high-speed rail must be part of that future. And for commuters, the cost and reliability of rail must outrank that of the freedom connected with the car. Furthermore, if the UK is going to truly level-up, continuing HS2 is necessary to greater social mobility. 

Some environmentalists have expressed severe concern over the digging up of the country’s greenbelt for HS2s tunnels. Our green spaces must be protected but so must our atmosphere. HS2 would get more cars off the road and would help commuters get from point A to B faster without polluting the environment so much.

Their non-commitment to the northern leg of the HS2 project is an example of Sunak’s administration playing politics for short-term gain, which is ironic given their latest slogan: “Long term decisions for a brighter future.” It also shows that government policy is still gripped by the ever-growing North/South divide.


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