Mayors demand HS2 goes ahead despite panic over soaring costs

Mayors demand HS2 goes ahead despite panic over soaring costs

September 27, 2023

Mayors join forces to demand HS2 goes ahead despite panic over soaring costs as Tory hopeful in London says she would ‘prefer’ the line to go ahead – and construction firms warn jobs are being sent abroad

Rishi Sunak is facing demands from mayors to push ahead with HS2 today amid warnings downgrading the project would damage business confidence.

Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram have joined forces to deliver a stark message against ‘leaving swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure’.

The Tory candidate for London mayor Susan Hall has also said she would ‘prefer’ the line to come all the way into the centre of the capital, rather than stopping in the suburbs.

Meanwhile, a construction firm involved in the massive scheme has said it will be ‘cautious’ about signing up to other government contracts – and is sending staff abroad.

Sadiq Khan  (left), Andy Burnham (right), Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram have joined forces to deliver a stark message against ‘leaving swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure’

In a statement, the mayors of London, Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Liverpool said they had been ‘inundated’ with concerns from constituents about the potential ‘economic damage from curbing the rail project. 

‘Investment in transport infrastructure is a huge driver of economic growth – creating jobs, increasing productivity and opening up new business opportunities. HS2 and NPR will deliver this right across our regions. 

‘This government has said repeatedly that it is committed to levelling up in the Midlands and North. Failure to deliver HS2 and NPR will leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose and cause huge economic damage in London and the South, where construction of the line has already begun.’

The five mayors called for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to be delivered in full to ensure ‘not only North-South but West-East connectivity between Liverpool and Hull, via Manchester Airport’, which they say must be a non-negotiable.

The five-way statement added: ‘The UK does not need a new line that only goes from Birmingham to Old Oak Common, which is six miles from central London.

‘This does nothing for the North of England. The full Y-shaped HS2 plan was designed to deliver economic benefit right across the country not only between the North and London but between Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham. All of these gains look set to be lost if media reports this week are to be believed.’

Ms Hall said she would ‘obviously prefer’ HS2 to run all the way to Euston rather than stopping short in the capital’s western suburbs.

Asked whether the Old Oak Common stop is what she wants for London, she told an LBC phone-in: ‘No, it isn’t. And I want the (whole HS2) thing to go ahead. Of course I do.

‘But equally, the Government have got to watch to see how much it’s costing and if they’re trying to negotiate now with everybody saying: ‘It doesn’t matter how much it costs, it’s got to go ahead’, it would put them in a difficult position.’

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer told Sky News that the PM and Jeremy Hunt would be ‘listening to a wide variety of voices’.

‘But as you will know, it’s the responsibility of the Government to keep all projects under consideration. And that’s what the Chancellor is doing,’ she said. 

‘He is, as he does on all matters which are spending billions of pounds of taxpayers’ funding, is looking at a whole range of projects to make sure that they are value for money.’

On top of the meeting with the Northern mayors, London mayor Mr Khan is also expected to speak at a Transport for the North board meeting about the benefits of the project for London and the South East.

‘Over recent days we have seen a justifiably horrified reaction from businesses and communities across our regions concerned about the economic damage that a decision not to proceed with HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) in full will cause,’ he said ahead of the meeting.

‘Failure to deliver HS2 and NPR will leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose, and cause huge economic damage in London and the South, while sending a terrible message that the Government is not serious about delivering the infrastructure and growth this country needs.’

Reports have suggested that Mr Sunak has been warned the price tag for the high-speed railway may have soared past £100 billion, even though ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project and even axed the Leeds leg.

Construction delays of up to two years between Birmingham and Crewe could postpone central London service until the 2040s, as a two-year pause at Euston due to soaring costs will leave Old Oak Common as the only London station for Birmingham Curzon Street services from 2029 to 2033.

Mr Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said that curtailing the project would be a ‘decision of epic proportions for our part of the world’.

However, in a letter to Mr Sunak, he and Manchester City council leader Bev Craig also said they were willing to discuss delaying the northern leg of HS2 if the Government commits to building an east-west route.

‘If you are adamant on making changes to the scheme, we could be open to a discussion about prioritising the Northern section of the line, between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, so that it enables NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail) to be built first,’ they wrote.

‘We believe the north of England needs new north-south and east-west rail infrastructure and should not be forced to choose between them in the same way that London hasn’t been forced such a choice.’

Meanwhile, several senior Conservatives, including former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, have warned that scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2 would be a ‘gross act of vandalism’ and ‘abandon’ the North and Midlands.

Another ex-chancellor, Lord Hammond, told The Times the project risked becoming a white elephant if it was not finished, while former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that scaling it back would be ‘completely wrong’.

An aerial view of the HS2 Streethay bridge which will allow HS2 high speed trains to pass under the West Coast rail mainline

Amid the backlash, Mr Sunak looks likely to hold off announcing a decision until the Autumn Statement in November.

Some have been concerned that details coming this week would cast a shadow over the Conservatives’ party conference which starts on Sunday in Manchester.

There have been indications he could announce a string of regional transport improvements in an effort to limit the political fallout, including bringing forward Northern Powerhouse Rail between Manchester and Leeds.

Downing Street said there is precedent to delaying aspects of the high-speed rail scheme because of ‘affordability pressures’, pointing to high inflation.

In October, the Government estimated the cost of the Manchester leg at up to £71 billion. In June, they reported that £22.5billion had already been spent on the initial leg to Birmingham, and approximately £2.3billion had been allocated to subsequent phases, encompassing expenses related to both labour and land.

All these figures were calculated using 2019 prices, and they would have substantially increased due to inflation, reflecting rising costs of materials and wages.

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