Axing the Manchester leg of the HS2 high-speed rail line would be a “tragedy” but the government needs to “get a grip of the costs”, the country’s infrastructure chief has said.
Sir John Armitt, the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, which is responsible for providing expert advice to the UK government, also said cancellation of the route would tell the world that the UK “runs away when it starts to see some challenges”.
His intervention comes after ministers repeatedly refused to confirm to MPs whether or not the line would run to Manchester.
Two former Tory prime ministers have also warned Rishi Sunak against the idea. Boris Johnson told the Times it was “total Treasury-driven nonsense” and made no sense ”to deliver a mutilated HS2”.
The government has refused to guarantee the network will reach Manchester, despite £2.3bn having already been invested in stage two of the line.
The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said on Thursday that its budget was “getting totally out of control”.
A photograph of a leaked document published by the Independent earlier this week suggested that as much as £35bn could be saved by abandoning the the Manchester leg.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday morning, Armitt acknowledged there was a need to curb the cost of the line.
Asked what the impact of scrapping the Manchester leg would be, he said: “I think it would be a tragedy … What we have to do here is get a grip of the costs … there are massive benefits to the economy by continuing.
“This project from the beginning has been about capacity, it’s about levelling up, improving connectivity between London, the largest city in the UK and the two most substantial cities in the UK.
“If we don’t continue, what are we saying to the rest of the world? What are we saying to all those investors that we want to bring into the UK? Here’s a country which sets itself ambitions and then runs away when it starts to see some challenges. We have to meet the challenges.”
According to the Times, David Cameron has also raised private concerns about the line being heavily altered.
“He thinks it’s not only important in its own right, it’s central to levelling up, but also that it’s a totemic Conservative pledge,” an anonymous ally told the newspaper.
Leaders in northern England have also called on Downing Street to honour promises to build the line after reports that Rishi Sunak was set on cutting it short after the London-to-Birmingham leg.
The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, said the reports “beggared belief” after the promises of successive Conservative governments over the past 10 years.
HS2 was announced by the last Labour government and has been backed by Tory administrations since. It is intended to link London, the Midlands and the north of England, but has been plagued by delays and rising costs.
A budget of £55.7bn for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015, but some reports suggest the bill has already surpassed £100bn, having been driven up by inflation.
Ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project and axed sections in the north.
The eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds was reduced to a spur line that will end in the east Midlands.
Construction between Birmingham and Crewe has also been delayed by two years, with services potentially not entering central London until the 2040s.
Work at Euston has also been paused for two years as costs were forecast to almost double to £4.8bn.