Five Labour mayors join forces to demand Prime Minister keeps Northern leg of HS2 on track

Five Labour mayors have warned that failure to deliver in full on HS2 would "leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose".

Labour mayors Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram will gather in Leeds on Wednesday, 27 September, to issue a joint plea to the Prime Minister not to cut HS2 further.

Ahead of the meeting, they issued a shared statement to express dismay at the prospect of the UK Government scrapping the rail project's northern leg.

The joint statement revealed the five mayors have been "inundated" with concerns from constituents about the potential "economic damage that will result from any decision not to proceed with HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) in full".

The statement said: "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 urged 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."

The government said it is 'committed to levelling up'. Credit: PA Images

Labour have also piled further pressure on the Prime Minister, accusing him of overseeing a spike in the cost of the project while at the Treasury and calling on him to update MPs on its fate.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said it was “concerning” if Mr Sunak was shocked at the scale of spending.

“In your present and previous roles, both as Chancellor and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, you have had plenty of opportunities, as well as a responsibility to British taxpayers, to monitor spending and progress.

“It is under your direct watch that the cost of HS2 has reportedly almost trebled,” she wrote.

She said that during Mr Sunak’s tenure as chancellor, the National Audit Office had published a report on HS2.

Ms Haigh added that the Treasury had also agreed revised funding for phase one of the project in the wake of the Oakervee Review.

Rishi Sunak is reviewing how the cost of HS2 could be "controlled" but that no decision had been made on the rail project's northern leg. Credit: PA Images

“I note that the Government has a non-executive director on the board of HS2 to provide monthly oversight of the project and has appointed a Minister for HS2 to provide accountability at the ministerial level.

“HS2 is the Government’s largest infrastructure programme by value. I’m therefore concerned that, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chancellor, and now Prime Minister, you suggest that you had no idea what was happening with the project.

“Please can you confirm that HM Treasury receives regular reports from the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd? If so, did you ever read any of these reports?”

In the letter, Ms Haigh asks if Mr Sunak will “commit to urgently updating Parliament in full on the current status of the project and its updated costs, based on cash prices and 2023 prices, not 2019 prices?”

Rishi Sunak has faced political backlash over reports he is weighing axing the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2 amid soaring costs.

On Tuesday, Home Office minister Chris Philp said Mr Sunak was reviewing how the cost of HS2 could be "controlled" but that no decision had been made on whether to axe or delay the rail project's northern leg.

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."

An HS2 worker in a hi vis jacket Credit: PA Images

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."

Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham are among the five mayors urging the Prime Minister not to cut HS2 further.

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.

Mr Sunak may now put back 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, 1 October, 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 £22.5 billion had already been spent on the initial leg to Birmingham, and approximately £2.3 billion 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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