Instead, it’s expected that the Department for Transport – led by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – will announce a new rail plan tomorrow, involving £96 billion of funding for new routes in the North and Midlands to soften the blow of the scrapping and the likely perception that London and the South East are being favoured again. Boris Johnson is already facing a backlash from the so-called Red Wall over the decision.
The government is set to argue the new plans will deliver comparable benefits more quickly and cheaply, with a source telling BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley that they would show an ‘enormous amount of common sense’.
But the plans are likely to attract fierce criticism from business leaders and others who have long been promised a HS2 link that reaches Leeds and improves connections between Yorkshire and the Midlands. The authorities running Leeds city centre are likely to be highly displeased, too, given the city has already set aside a large portion of its centre to accommodate a new station.
What is set to be introduced instead?
According to sources, Shapps is set to announce on Thursday a range of disparate projects to replace the planned extension to Leeds.
One would run between Leeds and Sheffield and another from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, with an apparently non-high-speed gap of 50 miles between the two new lines.
The Mail on Sunday has also reported that Leeds will now receive its own tram system to make up for it no longer being connected to HS2 – a move that is unlikely to go down well with leaders and business leaders there.
All this comes less than two years after Boris Johnson committed to bringing HS2 to the north of England, saying in a statement on transport infrastructure in February 2020 that the government would be building ‘a rapid connection from the West Midlands to the northern powerhouse, to Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds’.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: "The reported loss of any of the new line on the eastern leg of HS2 is damaging, reducing the benefits of the section being built now between Birmingham and London.
"Without the benefits to areas such as Yorkshire and the North East, HS2's status as a project to drive the whole of the UK is undermined considerably. Will this be a government that levels up, or levels down and walks away from the northern powerhouse they promised with city leaders across the north?”
Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, accused the government of trying to back out ‘of promises made on badly-needed major infrastructure projects’, describing the reported about-turn as ‘half-baked and repackaged’.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, who represents the Thirsk and Malton constituency in North Yorkshire, told the i newspaper that the government’s downsized plans suggested it was not actually willing to put its money where its mouth is.
This is the latest twist in the ongoing HS2 saga, which many have criticised for being unnecessary, pointless, vastly over-budget and already likely to follow Crossrail (three years late and costing significantly more than planned) in being behind deadline.
Campaigners against the planned extension, including representatives from many villages and towns who were set to have been affected by construction of the new line, have voiced their approval of the reports suggesting the government is about to change tack.
The £40 billion section of the line was set to scythe through parts of South and West Yorkshire to link the Midlands and Leeds, and opponents to the planned route have told the BBC of their relief that the government is expected to think again.
Homes would have been demolished and large viaducts constructed to hold the proposed Birmingham to Leeds route and spur line to Sheffield, under the original plans, which were designed to cut journey times between the Midlands and Yorkshire and increase the rail network’s capacity.
However, from the very start, the plans have attracted vociferous opposition, especially from the local residents who would have been most affected by the work.
Sandra Haith, from an anti-HS2 campaign group in Bramley, Rotherham, told the BBC that the route would have brought with it ‘untold devastation’ and ‘heartbreak’ to communities along the line, while providing no tangible benefits.
“We’re absolutely elated that it’s not going to go ahead, if the reports are true,” she said. “I can't begin to tell you...it's the elation coming out now. So much hard work has gone on to stop this.”
She added: “For five and a half years, nobody has listened, and finally, if this is cancelled, it proves that what we've been trying to say all these years is true.”
How could property investors be impacted by this news?
One of the main business cases for the controversial line was the extra jobs and investment it would bring to previously more ignored regions, as well as connecting some of the great cities of the North and Midlands on a far greater scale than before.
It was a levelling up project before that slogan had even been thought up by Boris Johnson and his Conservative government.
This may have been to the benefit of some investors in places like Leeds, Sheffield, Toton (planned location of the East Midlands hub) and Chesterfield, with more people being drawn to these areas to live or work and, in turn, creating more opportunities to sell or let property to this increased population.
But there will no doubt be many investors who are as against the plans as its most strident critics and will be delighted to see the proposals shelved.
The issue of HS2 divides cities, towns, villages, communities, local councils and political parties perhaps like no other. Supporters say such large-scale infrastructure projects are needed for growth and for genuinely levelling up the country, reducing inequality and London’s all-imposing dominance, as well as improving the capacity and speed of England’s train routes.
Opponents, however, point to the huge cost, the environmental damage, the upheaval to many people’s lives, and the fact that the money would be better spent on improving or enhancing existing infrastructure as reasons why HS2 should be scrapped.
When will HS2 be ready?
Work has already started on the first phase, which links London with the Midlands and a new Birmingham Interchange station. The second phase is set to see the line extend to Crewe, before the final phase – which was originally also set to include the extension of the line to an East Midlands hub and Leeds – reaches Manchester.
Under the original plans, the first phase was set to open at the end of 2026, but various delays and issues with the start of construction means this now won’t happen until between 2029 to 2033. Large-scale infrastructure projects in Britain tend to be ready much later than planned – just look at Crossrail for recent evidence of that – so it seems more likely the line will open much closer to 2033 than 2029.
The second phase, meanwhile, was originally set to be operational in 2032-33, but that has now been extended to 2035-40 – a considerable amount of time away.
There are still no guarantees that the second phase will get the green light, and it could be the case that existing lines will be enhanced instead and linked up to the Birmingham to London line – which is now well underway although still some years off completion.
For now, though, the troubled project continues on its rollercoaster journey, with no knowing for sure when the next hiccup will emerge from.