Five Labour mayors will gather in Leeds to issue a joint plea to the Prime Minister not to cut HS2 further.
Rishi Sunak is facing a political backlash over reports he is weighing axing the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2 amid soaring costs.
On Tuesday, Home Office minister Chris Philp said Mr Sunak was reviewing how the cost of HS2 could be “controlled” but that no decision had been made on whether to axe or delay the rail project’s northern leg.
On Wednesday, Labour mayors Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram will call for HS2 to be spared from further cuts in a joint declaration.
On top of the meeting with the Northern mayors, London mayor Mr Khan is also expected to speak at a Transport for the North board meeting about the benefits of the project for London and the South East.
Reports have suggested that Mr Sunak has been warned the price tag for the high-speed railway may have soared past £100 billion, even though ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project and even axed the Leeds leg.
Construction delays of up to two years between Birmingham and Crewe could postpone central London service until the 2040s, as a two-year pause at Euston due to soaring costs will leave Old Oak Common as the only London station for Birmingham Curzon Street services from 2029 to 2033.
Mr Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said that curtailing the project would be a “decision of epic proportions for our part of the world”.
Manchester City Council Leader Councillor Bev Craig (@BevCraig) and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (@MayorofGM) have sent an urgent joint letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the future of HS2.
— Manchester City Council (@ManCityCouncil) September 25, 2023
However, in a letter to Mr Sunak, he and Manchester City council leader Bev Craig also said they were willing to discuss delaying the northern leg of HS2 if the Government commits to building an east-west route.
“If you are adamant on making changes to the scheme, we could be open to a discussion about prioritising the Northern section of the line, between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, so that it enables NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail) to be built first,” they wrote.
“We believe the north of England needs new north-south and east-west rail infrastructure and should not be forced to choose between them in the same way that London hasn’t been forced such a choice.”
Meanwhile, several senior Conservatives, including former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, have warned that scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2 would be a “gross act of vandalism” and “abandon” the North and Midlands.
Another ex-chancellor, Lord Hammond, told The Times the project risked becoming a white elephant if it was not finished, while former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that scaling it back would be “completely wrong”.
🚄 "Giving the North the railways we deserve is at the core of making Levelling Up a reality."
— Mayor Steve Rotheram (@LCRMayor) September 26, 2023
Mr Sunak may now put back announcing a decision until the autumn statement in November.
Some have been concerned that details coming this week would cast a shadow over the Conservatives’ party conference which starts on Sunday in Manchester.
There have been indications he could announce a string of regional transport improvements in an effort to limit the political fallout, including bringing forward Northern Powerhouse Rail between Manchester and Leeds.
Downing Street said there is precedent to delaying aspects of the high-speed rail scheme because of “affordability pressures”, pointing to high inflation.
In October, the Government estimated the cost of the Manchester leg at up to £71 billion. In June, they reported that £22.5 billion had already been spent on the initial leg to Birmingham, and approximately £2.3 billion had been allocated to subsequent phases, encompassing expenses related to both labour and land.
All these figures were calculated using 2019 prices, and they would have substantially increased due to inflation, reflecting rising costs of materials and wages.