HS2 route north of Birmingham in doubt as Sunak and Hunt explore more cost-cuts

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The British government on Thursday refused to commit to building the northern section of the High Speed 2 rail line between Birmingham and Manchester, prompting fresh fears about the project.

Speculation about the future of the scheme, which has repeatedly been cut back as costs have spiralled higher, followed a meeting between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt this week to identify further potential savings.

One official involved was photographed carrying a document relating to the meeting, which included a “savings table” showing the costs of each part of the scheme north of Birmingham — a story first reported by the Independent newspaper.

Axing the section between Birmingham and Manchester would save almost £30bn. Construction has not started yet but the government has already spent more than £2bn on design work and buying up land.

HS2’s price tag has more than doubled from the original budget of £33bn a decade ago when the line was originally envisaged to run from London to Birmingham before splitting into two sections to Manchester and Leeds.

In recent years it has been held up as a symbol of the Conservative government’s flagship levelling-up policy, designed to address regional economic imbalances. But at the same time, ministers have cut it back in an effort to bring the costs under control, including scrapping most of the eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds.

Despite the cuts, the estimated cost for the overall project has soared from £37.5bn in 2013 to more than £70bn in 2019 prices. This year the government is expected to update the costings to reflect higher inflation, which is expected to push the price tag up by tens of billions of pounds.

The government said it remained committed to HS2. “You would expect Number 10 and the Treasury to regularly discuss large infrastructure projects. Spades are already in the ground on the HS2 programme and we remain focused on delivering that,” a spokesperson said.

But Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Transport refused to commit to building the line between Birmingham and Manchester when contacted by the Financial Times.

George Osborne, a former Tory chancellor who was one of the main driving forces behind the project, described any move by the government to abandon the northern section of HS2 as a “tragedy”.

Osborne, who is president of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a group of civic and business leaders, said on his Political Currency podcast: “You can’t build these railways overnight. It’s one thing we’ve learned, right? It’s and it’s all very well saying cancel this leg and build the other, you cancel this leg that is 13 years of work preparation planning in parliament, endless studies.”

Henri Murison, chief executive of the NPP, added that scaling the project back to such an extent would “do serious damage” to the government’s relationship with businesses and investors “who have made long-term investment decisions based on previous promises”.

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, accused the government of mismanaging the project at a huge cost to taxpayers. “They must urgently clarify the future of their flagship levelling-up project and ensure it will actually reach the north of England,” she said.

Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said the government was treating the north as “second-class citizens”, leaving it with “Victorian infrastructure” while investing in modern rail connections in the south. 

As part of other recent attempts to cut costs, ministers announced plans earlier this year to halt work on the final 7km of the line into central London and the rebuilding of Euston station in the capital which is meant to be the terminus. They also announced delays to the Birmingham to Crewe section of the line, which is now in doubt.

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