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Five Labour mayors join forces to derail Sunak’s plan to axe HS2

Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham among local leaders in talks with transport chiefs

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 27 September 2023 11:48 BST
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Andy Burnham warns he could sue Sunak government if HS2 axed

Five Labour mayors has joined forces in a bid to derail Rishi Sunak’s plans to axe or delay the northern leg of HS2 – warning of huge “economic damage” across the country.

The Independent first revealed that the prime minister was in secret talks – dubbed Project Redwood – with his chancellor Jeremy Hunt to scrap phase 2 of the project.

Labour mayors Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram issued a joint plea to the prime minister not to cut the landmark high-speed rail further.

The local leaders – who meet transport chiefs in Leeds on Wednesday as they organise opposition – warned that failure to deliver in full on HS2 would “leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose”.

A 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 in full”.

Mr Burham has already warned the government that his Greater Manchester authority could sue if the northern leg of HS2 is scrapped, insisting: “We are not just going to lie down.”

Mr Sunak has faced huge political backlash over reports he is weighing axing the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2 amid soaring costs – with Boris Johnson and George Osborne among the senior Tories warning the PM he must not “mutilate” the project.

The PM and chancellor are understood to be considering an option to quell a Tory backlash by kicking the Birmingham to Manchester route into the long grass by delayed it by up to seven years.

Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak under huge pressue to commit to HS2 (PA)

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.

Despite his rhetoric, Mr Burnham has suggested he could be open to a delay if the if the government commits to building an east-west route and commit to a section of HS2 between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly.

Senior red wall Tories in the influential Northern Research Group have signalled they are willing to accept a delay to the northern leg of HS2 – so long as the PM commits to east-west rail projects known as Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Like Labour mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, the NRG may reluctantly accept a delay to phase 2 if the government commits to building that part of HS2 between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly that would boost east-west projects.

John Stevenson, chair of the NRG, told The Independent: “HS2 is very important, but probably of more importance is east-west connectivity across the north of England. Both are a driver of growth. The best case scenario is that both are built, but if there’s a choice our priority is east-west.”

“It’s important that the legislation carries on to allow for Northern Powerhouse Rail. It would allow HS2 to be done at a later date. I’ve put my tuppenceworth in [with the chancellor]. I don’t think any final decisions will be made until after conference.”

Andy Burnham is leading efforts to save HS2’s second leg (PA Wire)

Meanwhile, Transport for the North, the body set up by government, has passed a motion on Wednesday calling on the Sunak government to commit to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full.

Henrietta Brealey, the chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, warned that ending the project in the city would put 8,000 jobs at risk. “It would be a colossal waste of money, undermine investor confidence and tear up transport and regeneration plans,” she told The Guardian.

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.

On Wednesday, culture secretary Lucy Frazer said Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt “listen to a wide variety of voices” on HS2. She told Sky News that the chancellor “always considers major infrastructure projects, the costs to the public purse”.

Ms Frazer also said high salaries for HS2 top bosses was being looked at by Mr Hunt, after it emerged that more than 40 staff earn £150,000 per year or more. “It is important that we make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent well,” she said.

Sunak is thought to be considering a delay of up to seven years (Getty/PA)

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

The Tories’ London mayoral candidate Susan 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 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.”

In October, the government estimated the cost of the Manchester leg at up to £71 bn. In June, they reported that £22.5bn had already been spent on the initial leg to Birmingham.

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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