HS2: Rishi Sunak told scrapping northern leg would be 'final nail in the coffin of levelling up'
It comes as he is considering plans to scrap or significantly delay the second phase of the high-speed rail project, which would link Birmingham and Manchester, amid concerns about rising costs. A final decision is due to be announced in November’s autumn statement.
In a joint statement, the five Labour mayors said axing that phase would “leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose and cause huge economic damage”.
They said the project is “a huge driver of economic growth” and central to levelling up, as businesses are eager to invest and create jobs in towns and cities which have high-quality rail links.
But the mayors stopped short of calling on their own party to make a firm commitment to HS2 ahead of the General Election. Mr Coppard said “we will have to look at what we inherit” and Mr Khan said the party’s leaders do not want to “write a blank cheque now”.
The latest estimates suggest HS2 could cost up to £71bn, after a series of reviews, delays and design changes. But that figure, set in 2019 prices, is expected to rise to more than £90bn when it is revised later this year and inflation is taken into account.
Mr Khan said the UK will become “a laughing stock” if HS2 is scaled back again and it becomes a £40bn “shuttle service” which runs between Birmingham and west London.
“If the Government announces it will not proceed with HS2 north of Birmingham and not have a HS2 station in central London, it will be the final nail in the coffin of levelling up,” said the Mayor of London. “It’s impossible, by anyone’s definition, to level up if you’re not investing in high-quality transport infrastructure.”
Mr Burnham said he is concerned northern leaders are not involved in the Government’s discussions about HS2 even though they will have “enormous implications for the north of England for the rest of the century”.
“The Government has caused costs to rise,” said the Greater Manchester Mayor. “They’ve been chopping and changing it and they decided to put a tunnel through the Chilterns because of pressure from MPs there. They prioritise those parts of the country.
“They’ve spent money on the places they care most about and left us potentially with nothing. They’ve mismanaged massively and now they expect the North of England to pay the price.”
Mr Burnham also said he is open to a discussion with ministers about delaying construction of the northern leg of HS2, if the Government commits to building Northern Powerhouse Rail.
“We shouldn’t be forced to choose and we need both,” he said. “But we would have a conversation about how we do that if they brought us in.”
Mr Coppard said Yorkshire has “already made a huge compromise” over HS2, as the eastern leg running to Sheffield and Leeds was scrapped in 2021.
“The eastern leg has already been cut,” said South Yorkshire’s Mayor. “This is part of a coordinated campaign by this government to not invest in the North.”
The Department of Transport is conducting a two-year study which will look at whether HS2 services can run to Leeds via a different route on upgraded lines.
But Ms Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, is urging the Government to abandon the study and build the Y-shape network that was originally proposed, with a line to Leeds.
“We’ve got to be bold and build – that’s how you build growth. I am sick of the North being an afterthought to this Government,” she said.
During their meeting in Leeds, the mayors also said building Northern Powerhouse Rail “in full” – with high-speed lines which run between Liverpool to Leeds, via Manchester and Bradford – must be “a non-negotiable”.
A government spokeswoman said: “The HS2 project is already well underway with spades in the ground, and our focus remains on delivering it.”