Rishi Sunak ‘delays decision on downgrading HS2 until November’ amid furious Tory backlash – with calls for route to be used to lay power cables to claw back value for taxpayer
Rishi Sunak looks to have pushed back a decision on downgrading HS2 after a furious Tory backlash.
The PM had been expected to declare that the Manchester leg of the massive project was being axed or postponed amid alarm at spiralling costs.
Allies have been briefing that those running the scheme have been acting like ‘kids with the golden credit card’, insisting Mr Sunak is not willing to accept a ‘ballooning’ bill.
But Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Lord Heseltine are among the big beasts who have warned against abandoning the long-standing plans.
The government now appears to have backed off an announcement before the Tory conference – due to take place in Manchester from this weekend.
And the decision seems unlikely to be confirmed before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers his Autumn Statement in November.
Meanwhile, JCB chair Lord Bamford has suggested that the HS2 route could be repurposed for cabling infrastructure, with demand for electricity soaring. In a letter to the Telegraph, he said ‘lateral thinking’ was needed to ‘secure some value’ from the spending so far.
Rishi Sunak (pictured in Hertfordshire yesterday) looks to have pushed back a decision on downgrading HS2 after a furious Tory backlash
The PM had been expected to declare that the Manchester leg of the massive project was being axed or postponed amid alarm at spiralling costs
Building in progress at the Old Oak Common station site in the suburbs of London
A source told the Times that the HS2 finances were ‘far worse than anyone knows’ and Mr Sunak was unwilling to ‘sit back and watch this balloon’.
Touring broadcast studios this morning, Policing minister Chris Philp insisted no decision had been taken. Downing Street indicated there was no timetable for an announcement.
The havering comes as it was claimed that ministers have known for nearly two years that the business case for much of HS2 does not stack up.
Sources involved with the beleaguered project said officials were aware in the winter of 2021 that they would get as little as 90p of benefit for each pound of public money spent.
Critics said it meant ministers have squandered the opportunity to potentially save billions.
But Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham appealed to Mr Sunak not to axe the project entirely, even if it has to be delayed.
He said ditching the northern leg from Birmingham to Manchester would create a ‘North-South chasm’, adding: ‘It would leave the North of England with Victorian infrastructure, probably for the rest of this century.’
Mr Osborne and former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine said abandoning the Manchester leg would be a ‘gross act of vandalism’ that would be seen as a sign the Government was ‘abandoning’ the North.
Mr Sunak weighs up whether to axe the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2. This consists of Phase 2a, which links Birmingham with Crewe, and Phase 2b, which takes it to Manchester.
Delaying its construction by up to seven years is another option being considered, The Independent reported. This could mean trains not running to Manchester until the late 2040s.
Also being weighed up is whether HS2 trains should run into London Euston or stop six miles away at Old Oak Common. Mr Sunak yesterday refused to comment on reports that he plans to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg and stop short of central London.
Speaking during a visit to a community centre in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire yesterday, the PM said: ‘What I would say is we’re absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country, not just in the North but in the Midlands, in all other regions of our fantastic country.’ Paul Johnson, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said successive governments had signed off on the grandiose project despite knowing it was going to be ‘hugely expensive, with relatively little gain’.
He said: ‘It rather looks like we’re going to totally waste the money on this in producing a rail line at the cost of tens of billions, which will get you from Birmingham to central London less quickly than you can do at the moment.’
A decision now seems unlikely to be confirmed before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (pictured) delivers his Autumn Statement in November
Sources confirmed that the business case for Phase One of HS2, which connects London and Birmingham, fell to around 90p of benefit per pound spent in November 2021. At the time, the business case for the entire London to Manchester route remained positive. But it had fallen to £1.10 of benefit for each pound spent by May this year.
The business case for the Crewe to Manchester leg, which ministers are now considering scrapping, has fallen to about 70p per pound spent.
Officials last night insisted that the figures did not include ‘dynamic wider economic impacts’.
Tory MP Greg Smith, who sits on the Commons transport committee, said the 2021 warning should have rung alarm bells more widely. Instead, more than £9billion has been ploughed into the project since then. He said: ‘They’ve thrown away billions that could have been saved. I’ve been saying consistently and relentlessly that this project is not affordable and isn’t going to deliver any value for the British public.
‘It’s therefore no surprise to me that ministers have known about some of these figures for some time. This project is nuts and a complete waste of money.
‘It’s something we didn’t need before the Covid-19 pandemic and definitely don’t need now with many still working from home. It’s also unjustifiable with the human misery it has caused, with constituencies including mine turned into building sites. It’s bonkers, totally mad.’
A computer-generated impression of how the HS2 trains could look
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