Mayors in talks to bring HS2’s northern leg back to life

Tory Andy Street and Labour’s Andy Burnham to discuss private sector plan to pay for project with transport secretary

Alexander Butler,Adam Forrest
Sunday 21 January 2024 18:34 GMT
Rishi Sunak confirms HS2's Manchester leg will be scrapped

Regional mayors have hatched a cross-party plan to bring HS2’s axed northern leg back to life with help from the private sector.

Tory mayor of Birmingham Andy Street and Labour mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham are now set to hold talks with transport secretary Mark Harper to discuss whether the project could be revived.

Mr Street told the Daily Express that a new high-speed scheme, or major upgrades to the existing rail connection in the North, could mostly be paid for by the private sector.

“The mayors of the two regions are leading this but, to be clear, with government support,” said the Tory mayor. “By inviting the private sector in to play the maximum possible role, it can be significantly less costly for the public exchequer.”

A plan to revive parts of the northern stretch of HS2 are back on track, according to government officials
A plan to revive parts of the northern stretch of HS2 are back on track, according to government officials (PA Wire)

The Independent first revealed the radical move by Rishi Sunak to ditch the Birmingham to Manchester section of the high-speed rail project.

The prime minister was met with howls of outrage from business chiefs and senior Tories after he used his party conference speech in October to confirm our exclusive that he was scrapping the link.

The northern section replacement project is being overseen by Sir David Higgins, the former chair of HS2 who is now chair of Gatwick Airport.

Train operating companies would reportedly meet the initial costs of a new line but some input from the taxpayer would still be required.

Leading engineering giants Arup and Mace Engineering are at the forefront of discussions aimed at getting private finance to rescue the Birmingham to Manchester link.

Mr Street said: “We have to be realistic about this. If I say it won’t cost the Exchequer anything, that’s probably not the case. But we are definitely looking for it to cost substantially less.”

The Tory mayor added: “We have got around the table organisations that do the private-sector funding of rail in other parts of the world, and people who either own or are linked to operators.”

The rail link could connect the end of the HS2 line in Handsacre in Staffordshire, just north of Birmingham, with Stockport, which is set to be the final stop on a high-speed network.

However, with the government ending “safeguarding” of land on the axed HS2 route, there is a race to make progress with the project.

The idea of reviving the northern leg could prove controversial among some Tory MPs who fought against the impact on their constituencies.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham wants to revive HS2’s northern leg
Manchester mayor Andy Burnham wants to revive HS2’s northern leg (PA)

Sir Keir Starmer has spoken to Mr Burnham about ways to boost rail connectivity in the North – but he has warned it would not be possible to bring back the original taxpayer-fund northern leg.

The Labour leader told the BBC earlier this month he “can’t stand here and commit to reversing” the government’s decision, adding: “Contracts are going to be cancelled.”

Mr Sunak announced in October that the government would reinvest £36bn from the HS2 project in a series of road and rail schemes across the country.

Andrew McNaughton, HS2’s former technical director, said Mr Sunak had created a “growth reduction scheme” by axing the route. He said the “whole strategy for connecting the North and South of England was HS2”.

“Any other plans were all predicated on HS2 creating the new capacity either directly or indirectly for the next 100 years,” he said.

He added: “If there is nothing to replace it, you would need to ration. What’s the rationing on the railway? You have to price people off. That’s how it’s always been done as the only way of managing demand.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The government is supportive of work to improve rail connectivity between Birmingham and Manchester.”

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