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Starmer refuses to pledge undoing HS2 cuts

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Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has delivered an effective coup de grâce to the northern leg of the HS2 high speed rail line as he refused to commit to reversing Rishi Sunak’s decision to axe the line beyond Birmingham.

Starmer said that the UK prime minister’s handling of HS2 had been “a fiasco”, but asked whether a Labour government would save the project, he said: “I can’t stand here and commit to reversing that decision.”

Sunak on Wednesday cancelled the northern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester, claiming that it would save £36bn that would instead be spent on alternative road and rail schemes.

Starmer suggested in a round of interviews before Labour’s party conference in Liverpool that Sunak’s decision marked the point of no return for HS2.

“They’ve just blown a massive hole through it and are about to start cancelling contracts, releasing the land, reconfiguring Euston,” he told ITV News Central.

Sunak’s allies had hoped to wrong foot Starmer by challenging him to commit to the full HS2 route. The Conservatives would then have asked how he would pay for the other transport projects promised by the prime minister.

Starmer’s move could anger some Labour figures. Last week five Labour mayors urged Sunak not scale back HS2, saying it would “leave swaths of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose”.

Earlier on Thursday Sunak’s announcement that the HS2 southern leg from Birmingham would run to Euston in central London was thrown into doubt after government officials said they could not guarantee the station would be built without private money.

The prime minister said he would take a new approach to the Euston redevelopment, which was put on hold earlier this year, and bring in private sector developers.

Sunak promised a Canary Wharf-style development at Euston that would include thousands of offices and homes. His new plan involves building fewer rail platforms to save costs.

“We will complete the line from Birmingham to Euston,” Sunak told Conservative conference in Manchester.

But just a day later, the officials said the commitment to run the line relied on the government securing enough private sector investment, and that trains would otherwise stop at Old Oak Common, six miles from central London.

Later on Thursday, the Department for Transport said: “As we have always planned, the new line will finish at Euston — that has not changed.”

“It is simply wrong to talk down the scale and benefits of this regeneration . . . there is already support and interest from the private sector,” the department said.

“Ministers have had discussions with key partners since the announcement and the transport secretary will be meeting with the Euston Partnership in the coming weeks,” they added.

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