A Labour government will have the option of reviving the northern legs of the HS2 rail project, after it emerged it is very unlikely that any land bought by the government for the route will be sold before the general election.
The project was surprisingly axed by Rishi Sunak in his Tory conference speech last year, and Keir Starmer has resisted calls to recommit to the northern phase of the project, blaming in part the fact that the government was “already releasing land between Birmingham and Manchester” bought up for the route.
However, sources have told the Observer it is extremely unlikely that any land purchased north of Birmingham will have been sold by the time a new government is in place.
While so-called safeguarding laws protecting part of the proposed HS2 route to Crewe will be lifted early this year, those rules can be reimposed by a future government and their removal does not entail the sale of government-owned land.
It means that whoever wins the next election will have the option of reviving the project. However, its sudden cancellation, as well as the difficulty in securing the expertise required to build the scheme, mean it may then be even more expensive to deliver.
Industry insiders believe there is no chance of this happening under a Sunak-led government, as the prime minister is understood to have been opposed to the project and its growing costs since his time as chancellor.
Labour’s position is that it has to wait to see what situation it would inherit before making any decisions, but it is increasingly clear that reviving the project may not be as impossible as once thought.
Labour’s leadership is extremely cautious about committing to any spending projects that could open it up to attack from the Tories. Former Siemens boss Jürgen Maier is carrying out a review of UK railway and transport infrastructure for the party and could touch on the issue.
A swift sale of HS2 land is unlikely because the government has to meet strict legal tests to offload anything it bought for the route. An accelerated process may risk legal action, while previous sell-offs have taken years.
Rail experts are increasingly perplexed by the cancellation of the HS2 route from Birmingham to Crewe, known as “phase 2a”, which would have solved an impending capacity crunch on the west coast mainline. Without any additional capacity by the end of the decade, they are predicting motorway pile-ups as more trucks head on to the roads, as well as higher fares to control passenger numbers.
The news comes with hopes growing over the viability of a privately backed alternative to the capacity issues created by the ditching of HS2. The government is currently examining a project, championed by the Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street and Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham, to create a link between Birmingham and Manchester airport with private backing.
A meeting between the group and transport secretary Mark Harper is due to take place later this month. While ministers are not standing in the way of the scheme being developed, there are concerns that a private scheme would ultimately result in taxpayers footing the bill, when train operators are charged to use it.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The government is supportive of work to improve rail connectivity between Birmingham and Manchester.
“We’re 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 – and as we set out in Network North, phase 2a safeguarding will be formally lifted in due course and phase 2b safeguarding will be amended by summer to allow for any safeguarding needed for Northern Powerhouse Rail.”