Sunak urged to back HS2 to Manchester despite cost fears

A sign post directing HS2 works traffic near the village of South Heath in Buckinghamshire (PA)
A sign post directing HS2 works traffic near the village of South Heath in Buckinghamshire (PA)

Rishi Sunak has been warned by senior Tories not to scrap the HS2 rail line to Manchester ahead of the Conservative conference in the city.

The Prime Minister is considering whether to scrap or delay the leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester in response to soaring costs.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said it would be “crazy” not to reconsider the project in the light of the rising price tag and the UK’s economic situation.

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

Writing in The Times, they warned Mr Sunak: “Governments are remembered for what they build and create. Make this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed.”

If the northern section was cancelled “the remaining stump, little more than a shuttle service from Birmingham to a London suburb, would become an international symbol of our decline”, they said.

George Osborne
George Osborne warned against cutting the HS2 project (Danny Lawson/PA)

Commons Health Committee chairman Steve Brine said it would look “odd” to scrap the scheme in the days before Tory MPs and activists arrive in Manchester.

He also said he hoped the line would run all the way into central London rather than terminating at Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.

“It would seem very odd for us to be in Manchester next week and can a project to Manchester,” Mr Brine told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.

“It would seem very odd not to bring this new rail line into central London and just stop it at Old Oak Common.

“So I really hope a way can be found to do this.”

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.

Downing Street and Treasury insiders suggested no timing had yet been fixed for any announcement on the future of the scheme.

But the Prime Minister 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.