Rishi Sunak fails to back HS2 track to North but says he is ‘committed to levelling up’

The PM wouldn't confirm or deny if he is considering scrapping or delaying the HS2 leg from Birmingham to Manchester but called speculation 'unhelpful', as ITV News' North of England Reporter Amy Welch reports

Rishi Sunak has insisted he is committed to levelling up despite declining to back building HS2 to the North in the face of warnings by senior Tories not to axe the rail project.

The Prime Minister is considering scrapping or delaying the leg of the contentious rail line from Birmingham to Manchester in response to soaring costs.

“I’m not going to comment on that type of speculation,” he said in an interview on Monday.

"But what I would say is we’re absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country, not just in the North but in the Midlands, in all other regions of our fantastic country.

“And transport infrastructure is a key part of that, not just big rail projects, but also local projects, improving local bus services, fixing pot holes, all of these things make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives.”

There has been criticism about the cost of building HS2 since it was announced. Credit: PA Images

Pressed yes or no whether it will go ahead, Mr Sunak insisted: “This kind of speculation that people are making is not right. We’ve got spades in the ground, we’re getting on and delivering.”

But he stressed they are connecting towns in the North, east to west, as a “really important part” of creating jobs and growth in the region.

Grant Shapps, recently promoted to Defence Secretary from his transport role, said it would be “crazy” not to reconsider the project in considering the UK’s economic situation.

But Tory former chancellor George Osborne and ex-Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine were among senior figures warning that axing the Manchester route would be a “gross act of vandalism” which would mean “abandoning” the North and Midlands.

The Sunday Telegraph reported the potential cost of the high-speed rail scheme – which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said is “out of control” – had increased by £8 billion just for the initial London-Birmingham stretch, up from £45 billion.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak alongside the Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt Credit: PA

The PM and Chancellor are reported to be meeting to discuss the situation in the coming days.

Former transport secretary Mr Shapps used broadcast interviews on Sunday to say the Government could not write an “open-ended cheque” if costs were “inexorably going higher and higher”.

In a hint that a delay rather than an outright cancellation could be an option, Mr Shapps said: “I think the sequencing of what happens next is a perfectly legitimate question.”

The Independent reported the northern leg of the scheme could be pushed back by up to seven years.

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