Business for Scotland predicted that HS2 would never be built. The fact the axe has finally fallen on most of the line comes as no surprise. The rag-bag of transport upgrades which PM Rishi Sunak announced in his Conservative Party Conference speech in its place are unconvincing and include little for Scotland. The main one – upgrading the A75 – was already announced by PM Boris Johnson.
Many of the rail-replacement plans Sunak announced are still on the drawing board and decades from completion. Others are already built. One of the so called “Network North” pledges on the Government’s website: “the extension of the Manchester Metrolink to … Manchester Airport”, has been operational since 2014. The map on the site bizarrely cuts off Scotland above Dundee. It is an ill-planned bourach. The FT reported that the decision indicates the UK rail network is now entering a period of “managed decline”.
Now the Conservative government plans to sell off the valuable land that was compulsorily purchased for £600 million from Birmingham to Crewe to property developers – the party’s single biggest source of donations. That means no extra line can be built in the future.
The lack of urgency in building rail capacity for freight and passengers will slow progress to Net Zero in the UK and that is bound to affect Scotland’s ability to move faster to reduce emissions.
The Scottish government has been able to bring back the carrier – Scotrail – into public ownership. But the rail tracks remain the property of Network Rail, an arms-length UK government body.
Transport spending will be used to undermine devolution
In his conference speech, Rishi Sunak announced that his government would upgrade the A75 from Cairnryan. Readers who have been paying attention may feel that rings a bell – it does. It was announced at a party conference two years ago by Boris Johnson.
Sunak announced to rapturous applause: “We’ll connect our Union with the A75, boosting links between Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
Boris Johnson said in 2021: “We will restore those sinews of the Union that have been allowed to atrophy, the A1 north of Berwick and on into Scotland, the A75 in Scotland that is so vital.”
Michael Gove announced back then that the Westminster government planned to directly spend money that would in the past have been distributed by the EU through the Scottish Parliament and they were going to use it on roads, even though highways are a devolved responsibility.
That is an attempt to undermine devolution and by-pass Holyrood, which is being ramped up under Rishi Sunak’s government. Last week, before the conference, Sunak announced five Scottish towns (including Elgin in Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross’ constituency) would get “levelling up funds” directly from Westminster.
Once upon a time, HS2 was supposed to start in Scotland…
Readers with long memories may remember that once upon a time HS2 was supposed to start in Scotland.
In 2014 front pages carried Unionist warnings that a “Yes” vote in the independence referendum would lead to the Scottish leg being canned and damage the Scottish economy.
“The high-speed railway is a substantial public investment and it’s difficult to see how that investment would be justified from south of the Border,” an unnamed Cabinet Minister warned.
Scots were told to vote No to independence on the basis that the UK Government under PM David Cameron was promising to upgrade the West Coast line – the slowest and most overloaded in Europe – and make travel from Glasgow to London take 3 1/2 hours instead of 5.
The new line was also supposed to have more capacity for freight to take lorries off the roads and speed the path to Net Zero.
But Scotland has nothing to show for the billions HS2 has cost
When the UK Government spends money on projects that are contained within and benefit England, they have to pay a Barnett Consequential towards Scotland’s budget. Now that HS2 will not reach Manchester, hundreds of millions that might have allowed Holyrood to fund improvements to our own transport infrastructure will not be forthcoming. Claims that HS2 would have benefited Scotland were false and debunked in our articles years ago. What monies have reached Scotland’s budget are balanced by the fact that we also pay a population percentage share of the costs of the debt already run up to pay for HS2 and other financial disasters of Westminster, such as the PPE scandal.
Scotland is paying the price for another Westminster bourach
More than a decade has ground by since the plans for HS2 were started. Billions have been spent. Scotland has paid the price for being part of this ill-thought through project. The UK Government’s new promises are not worth the paper they are written on.
Scotland has managed to make a difference with the powers of devolution, by bringing Scotrail under public ownership and cutting fares. But the UK government still owns and controls the rail network. As an independent country, Scotland could do so much more.