Thursday , 28 September 2023
HS2 row as Sunak urged to make up mind about northern plans

HS2 row as Sunak urged to make up mind about northern plans

Rishi Sunak has been urged to make up his mind and commit to completing HS2 after political, business and transport leaders reacted with anger to The Independent‘s revelation that the project’s second stage could be scrapped.

George Osborne led a chorus of voices warning that abandoning the line would be a “mistake” – with a senior rail industry source tellingThe Independent the move would effectively kill plans for other promised rail upgrades in the north of England.

It came as Downing Street repeatedly refused calls to confirm the government was still committed to taking the line into Manchester as promised.

During a dramatic briefing of journalists in Westminster, the prime minister’s spokesman said the government would need to balance the interests of “passengers and taxpayers” when asked whether the northern leg could be shelved amid spiralling costs and delays.

Mr Osborne, who championed the high-speed rail project in government, said that abandoning the line would be “a real, real tragedy”.

“It’s a mistake. Yes, we’ve got to get costs under control – and we’ve got to ask why other countries in Europe can build high-speed lines much more cheaply than we can,” he said on his new podcast Political Currency, in response to The Independent’s story.

“But there’s a much bigger point here which is: are we prepared to take the difficult, long-term decisions which are controversial on infrastructure to provide for our country’s future?”

He went on: “HS2 will transform connectivity to the north of England and it would be a real, real tragedy if this government abandoned it.

Rishi Sunak has been urged to clarify the government’s stance on HS2 (Dan Kitwood/PA)

(PA Wire)

“If you cancel this leg that is 13 years of work, preparation… then you’re basically saying nothing is going to be built.”

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A senior rail industry source also expressed fears over what the “back and forth” over HS2 plans could mean for other northern transport projects. They told The Independent: “The government needs to make up its mind one way or another.

“Cancelling HS2 north of Birmingham is not only a waste of the money it has already spent on Phase 2, but it also hugely diminishes the value of Phase 1 that is now half way towards completion.

“It would also signal the end of Northern Powerhouse Rail, as over 20km of Phase 2 track will eventually be shared.

“At a time when we should be encouraging a shift from lorries to freight trains, and domestic air to rail, more back and forth over the HS2 link suggests the government just isn’t serious about net zero by 2050.”

Documents about the project were discussed at a meeting at No 10

(Political Pics)

The Independent revealed on Wednesday that Mr Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are in discussions about scrapping the second stage of the HS2 rail project as costs spiral amid severe delays.

A cost estimate seen by this publications shows that the government has already spent £2.3bn on stage two of the high-speed railway from Birmingham to Manchester but shelving the northern phase would save up to £34bn.

The documents, discussed at a meeting at No 10 on Tuesday headlined “chancellor and prime minister bilat”, suggest the £2.3bn is now not recoverable even if it is cancelled. The Independent understands talks are ongoing.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said ministers saw northern passengers as “second-class citizens” and derided repeated Tory promises to invest in the region.

“It’s coming up 10 years since [George] Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech and the Tories are set to scrap the last of his rail pledges,” he said.


“The result? The southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North left with Victorian infrastructure. Levelling up? My a**e.”

HS2 is expected to slash north-south intercity rail journey times, and also release vast amounts of capacity for local train services on existing lines.

But the project has been beset by delays and cost overruns and its original 2026 phase 1 opening date has now been pushed back to 2029 onwards. A planned spur heading to Leeds was already cut by the government in 2021.

It is unclear exactly which part of phase two could be cut, but the northernmost section from Crewe to Manchester is yet to get royal assent from parliament. Labour has said it will deliver the project in full.

Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a group representing businesses in the north of England, said any decision to curtail the project any further “would do serious damage to the government’s relationship with the business community” in the north and further afield.

Mr Sunak is also facing a chorus of his own MPs urging him to press ahead or risk being seen to abandon northern communities – though the issue divides the Tory party.

Tory MP Jason McCartney, a senior figure in the Northern Research Group (NRG) of Conservatives, called on the government to stop dithering and commit to HS2 in full.

“I want it delivered in full,” the MP for Colne Valley in Yorkshire told The Independent. “It needs to go to Manchester and to Leeds. It’s a lot of money, but connecting the north and south is the whole essence of it.”

Mr McCartney added: “It’s about adding capacity, and getting more people out of their cars. It’s already creating quality jobs. Let’s have the vision. Let’s be bold. Keir Starmer has campaigned against it. We need all parties to commit to it, if it takes over a decade to complete.”

Construction work on HS2 near Lichfield

(Getty Images)

One former Tory minister, previously involved in HS2, told The Independent that the whole point of the project was to connect the south to the north. “The worst approach is a half-way house,” they said on the prospect of phase 2 being scrapped.

The senior figure added: “Sunak never understood what levelling up means to communities in the north or how to deliver it.”

Another senior Tory – whose constituency is in the north of England – told The Independent that many MPs would be “angry about losing HS2” if phase 2 was scrapped and the project was stopped at Birmingham.

But they said some HS2 advocates would be open to a further delay, if it meant staggering spending over a longer period. “You must build it. But the costs are phenomenal. Slowing it down – that would probably be a sensible move, if it prevented doing a U-turn on finishing it.”

Meanwhile, other Tory MPs told The Independent that they were “hoping” Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt decided to cut the government’s losses and ditch phase 2.

Sir Edward Leigh said he would “delighted” if phase 2 was scrapped. “HS2 is the biggest waste of money ever. [It is] no longer justified on the basis of capacity nor of course on cost.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman told reporters in Westminster that “spades are already in the ground on our HS2 programme and we’re focused on delivering it” but that it would not promise the line would go to Manchester.

“I can’t comment on speculation around a leaked document. It is obviously standard process for departments to discuss the phasing of major projects like HS2… but the work is already under way,” he said.

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