'15 hours to save the North' - Labour councillors protest in Manchester on eve of HS2 decision

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Manchester Council leader Bev Craig with Labour councillors in Manchester

Labour councillors gathered just yards from the Conservative Party Conference to call on the prime minister to 'save the North'.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Manchester Council leader Bev Craig staged the protest outside the Central Library in the city to address reports the Northern leg of HS2 was to be scrapped.

Business leaders have also called on government to commit to building HS2 in full - calling it a "major act of economic self-sabotage" if it does not go ahead.

The decision is expected to be confirmed by Rishi Sunak in his speech, and he will instead pledge to reinvest around £36 billion of savings into road and rail schemes in the North and Midlands.

The protest, called '15 hours to save the North', was held on Tuesday 3 October - the eve before Mr Sunak's speech.

Mr Burnham, accompanied by Manchester council leader Bev Craig, delivered an impassioned last-ditch plea to keep the rail link in full.

The pair were flanked by Labour councillors holding letters on signs reading 'SAVE HS2'.

Mr Burnham said: "It's no way to treat this city when you're in this city.

"It's just disrespectful to these councillors here who have actually stood behind the case for HS2, even when it was difficult and the issues were challenging.

"We worked for 15 years on a cross-party basis to try and get the plan right.

"They are giving an object lesson tonight in how politics shouldn't be done.

"That's what brings it into contempt."

Manchester Airport is among businesses who have written to the prime minister warning of a "major act of economic self-sabotage".

Manchester United are among the leaders from more than 30 companies and business organisations who have written to Rishi Sunak urging him to not cancel the HS2 leg between Birmingham and Manchester.

The large and small organisations from Greater Manchester and the surrounding area have called on the Prime Minister to commit to building the high-speed railway in its entirety.

Several other notable organisations - including Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the University of Manchester and Co-operatives UK - signed a joint letter warning the Prime Minister he was risking the “prosperity” of the North.

It said the businesses would be open to working with the Government to try and combat the project’s spiralling costs, but stressed HS2 was “fundamental to the economic future of the whole of the country”.

The letter concluded: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity which we cannot afford to throw away.

"Scrapping this scale of infrastructure investment would risk our standing as a globally competitive UK in the future, and adversely impact our communities for decades to come.”

Ken O’Toole, MAG chief executive, said Mr Sunak would be wrong to “abandon the commitments the Government has made to deliver HS2”, adding the North needs “better connectivity”.

Mr O’Toole said the North’s growth and productivity had “been stifled by outdated rail infrastructure” over the past decade.

In a statement, he added: “The UK needs a bold and ambitious plan for unlocking the potential of the North and rebalancing the national economy.

“That plan should integrate a modern rail network with the global connectivity provided by Manchester Airport.

“We call on Government to work with business and political leaders to ensure that vision is delivered.”

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said the public must wait for Mr Sunak’s speech to “hear exact confirmation” on HS2 as he sought to argue it will still run, but indicating not on high-speed rails between Birmingham and Manchester.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain, Mr Shapps said: "There has been a lot of speculation about this, but the one thing I do know because I know the figures very well, is that before coronavirus and before we knew whether people would go back to work in the normal way that they did before seemed very obvious.

"But subsequently it is much less obvious and what we have heard about is 'scrapping that second part of HS2' - and HS2 will still run by the way - but we haven't heard about is how that money will be spent.

"I'm afraid we will have to wait for the speech to hear about that, but it could involve a lot of very important projects which actually I think communities will like around the country."

The prime minister said costs of the HS2 project had gone “far beyond” what had been predicted, calling the sums involved “enormous”.

The HS2 scheme was given a budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 but costs have ballooned, with an estimate of up to £98 billion – in 2019 prices – in 2020.

Since then, soaring inflation will have pushed costs even higher.

Reports suggested he will give the go-ahead for the scheme to reach central London in Euston, rather than terminating in the western suburbs of Old Oak Common, after pressure from within the Cabinet.

The prime minister is also facing a backlash from Conservatives, businesses and Northern leaders over a chaotic announcement to save billions of pounds by scrapping the HS2 leg to Manchester.

Mr Sunak is expected to hold an emergency Cabinet meeting to sign off the measures during his party conference in the city most directly hit by the cut.

He is then likely to confirm the decision in his speech to the Conservative membership, as he possibly softens the blow by announcing spending on other projects for the North.

The Tory Party conference, which concludes with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's speech on Wednesday, 4 October, has been dominated by speculation over the future of the line.

Want more on the issues affecting the North? Our podcast, From the North answers the questions that matter to our region.