By Andy Bruce
CREWE, England (Reuters) – A major project to revitalize the railway town of Crewe is buried under mounds of earth, serving as a grim warning for Britain’s Conservatives and their struggle to retain power.
The large city center building site in north-west England was to be transformed into a glossy shopping and entertainment complex that would crown a bus terminal and car park already under construction.
That part of the plan has now been abandoned, with local officials citing the government’s demolition of the northern part of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project as a factor, alongside high inflation, falling property values and overburdened households.
“It feels like Crewe is just a dying town. I think HS2 was one of the ways we were going to improve that, and now that’s not going to happen,” said local resident Andy Lewis as he waited patiently for a train at the historic railway station , a regional hub almost two centuries old.
Voters across northern England played a key role in propelling the Conservatives to a major election victory in 2019, inspired by Boris Johnson’s promises to pay the dividends of Brexit and the British regions, long London’s poor cousins , ‘to take it to the next level’.
More than four years later, the political landscape has changed and opinion polls show the ruling party losing that support, a turnaround that could help put the party on course for a massive national defeat to Labor in the general election expected this year .
Johnson was ousted as Prime Minister by his own lawmakers over breaches of the COVID lockdown, leading to a chaotic power struggle that saw Liz Truss in power for a few weeks before she too was forced out and replaced by Rishi Sunak, whose own premiership was marked by resignation and rebellion.
The leveling-up drive has since been dented by the axing of the northern part of the HS2 rail network, a project aimed at better connecting Britain’s cities and economy, in a move branded by former Prime Minister Johnson as “betraying the north of the country’. the country and the whole agenda of leveling up”.
Many local businesses and residents had hoped that the HS2 extension from Crewe to Manchester would bring billions in investment into the city.
“That was actually our opportunity, and I think it’s gone now,” says Paul Colman, chief executive of the region’s South Cheshire Chambers of Commerce.
The northern leg was canceled by Sunak in September as the estimated cost of the overall HS2 project rose above 100 billion pounds ($126 billion) and the infrastructure watchdog warned there was a fundamental problem with Britain’s ability to deliver such major manage projects.
Sunak described it as a difficult decision, but one driven by rising costs and a reduction in passenger numbers due to the COVID pandemic. Speaking in the northern town of Accrington in January, he said any money saved from canceling the northern leg would be reinvested across the country.
“Fixing potholes, limiting bus fares to two pounds, improving local roads, tackling bottlenecks, electrifying rail lines across the north, east and west. And that’s all going up for me,” the Prime Minister added.
Nevertheless, Kieran Mullan, the Conservative MP for Crewe, acknowledged that the loss of the HS2 link was a blow.
“I was disappointed,” he told Reuters. “It had special potential to help us when it came to connectivity.”
However, he said the government was committed to extensive work to revitalize Crewe in light of the cancellation.
“I think people actually understand that leveling up isn’t an overnight challenge,” he added. “It could be a generational challenge to unravel some of this long-standing inequality.”
‘RED WALL’ TURN ON SUNAK
That could be of limited value to the party in the coming months. The parliamentary seat for Crewe and neighboring Nantwich is likely to return to Labor at the next election, four separate polling models have predicted over the past year.
Crewe is part of the ‘Red Wall’ of constituencies in the north of England that have traditionally voted Labour, but switched to the Conservatives in 2019. They are widely expected to be crucial to the outcome of the elections to be held this year. , and the omens are unfortunate for Sunak and his party.
A YouGov poll last week showed only 20% of voters in the North planned to vote Conservative, compared to 37% before Johnson’s 2019 election victory.
The government’s perceived inability to level the playing field is one reason why Red Wall voters are deserting the Conservatives, according to a poll published in November by research advocacy group More in Common to the polarization of society. The problem ranks fourth after illegal immigration, failing health care and government jurisdiction.
Nationally, Sunak’s Conservatives are on average almost 20 points behind the Labor Party in polls conducted in recent months and are on track to lose more than half of their 349 parliamentary seats, according to the analysis website electoral calculus.
LONDON VERSUS THE REST?
Britain remains a divided nation.
London’s share of the national economy has risen by more than 3 percentage points to 24% since 2000, while no other British region has increased its share in the same period, according to official data.
Similar data from the EU statistics agency Eurostat shows much less polarization between regions in Germany and France.
Investment data illustrates the gap.
Spending on public infrastructure in London totaled £4,763 per person between 2010 and 2021, adjusted for inflation, official data shows. That is 63% more than the average outside the capital, according to Reuters calculations.
“The gap between London and the rest of Britain – and particularly poorer areas – is extreme among OECD economies,” said Diane Coyle, professor of economics at the University of Cambridge.
“Even a country like France, which is highly politically centralized, has a system where there is a constitutionally guaranteed distribution of funding,” she said.
“So we stand out.”
Over the past two decades, more political power has flowed to the regions – including parliaments for Scotland and Wales and elected mayors of city regions – but that devolution now had to include economic levers such as control over infrastructure spending, Coyle added.
‘PACKED AND ABANDONED’
HS2, once billed as Europe’s largest infrastructure project, has halved in size since the Conservatives won their landslide in 2019. Originally the line would have connected London with the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, but it will now terminate in Birmingham, approximately 100 miles (161 km) north of London.
Even after the construction of the shortened HS2, Britain will lag several times behind France, Germany, Italy and Spain when it comes to the capacity of its own high-speed rail, according to OECD data.
Labor leader Keir Starmer has said he will not revive the northern leg of HS2 if elected. He described the budget as “bloated” and referred to the fact that contracts are already being canceled. Instead, he says he would stick to Sunak’s Northern Powerhouse Rail plan to improve east-west rail links in the north.
Labor is also promising to transfer more power from Westminster, giving local leaders greater economic autonomy.
This could be cold comfort for Crewe.
Business leaders emphasize the city’s continued benefits as a well-connected center for distribution and manufacturing, but admit the loss of HS2 is a major blow.
Mark Haase, chief executive of SG World, whose Crewe operations include printing, manufacturing and software development, said the city is a “great area” for business.
The company may still have to look further for new business opportunities as the downsizing of HS2 would make it harder to further improve supply chains between Crewe, the rest of northern England and Scotland, he added.
In the meantime, the building site that was to become a shopping and entertainment center has been downgraded for temporary use, perhaps as a go-kart track or trampoline park.
Mullan, the Conservative MP for Crewe, said he appreciated that people were frustrated by the scrapping of the store plans.
“But basically what this means is that we can probably do something with the space in the short term,” he added. “It’s this boarded-up and abandoned space that I think has dragged the city center down for too long.”
(Reporting by Andy Bruce; graphics by Sumanta Sen; editing by William Schomberg and Pravin Char)