HS2: Sunak refuses to commit to Manchester link

HS2: Sunak refuses to commit to Manchester link
HS2: Sunak refuses to commit to Manchester link

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has again refused to say if the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 will be axed.

Asked by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg if the high-speed line would reach Manchester, he said: “We’re getting on with delivering [the project], I’m not going to comment on this speculation.”

Rising costs have led to growing doubts over this second leg of HS2. The first leg, between London and Birmingham, is already under construction.

HS2 is seen as key to the government’s pledge to “level up” the country. Labour and some Tory MPs have warned against scaling it back.

On Saturday, former PM Theresa May became the latest Conservative voice to warn against downgrading the project.

Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, has also criticized the idea, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned it could make the UK a “laughing stock”.

But Sunak said he “completely” rejected the criticism, telling Kuenssberg that the government was “absolutely committed to levelling up across this country”.

He highlighted a levelling up fund for 55 towns, adding that the UK was attracting “billions of pound of investment into this country, creating jobs everywhere”.

On Sunday, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove described HS2 as an “important project” but added that “we do need to look at value for money”.

“The costs of this project have been significantly greater than originally estimated,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips.

He also said that transport links in the North need to be improved between and within cities.

Speculation around the future of HS2 has been swirling for weeks, with the PM and other ministers repeatedly declining to confirm whether the project will be scaled back.

Many in Westminster had expected an announcement to have happened before the start of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, which kicks off on Sunday.

No 10 appears to have concluded it can get through the four days of conference without clarifying its position.

A senior government source told the BBC: “We are in Manchester — but we are not speaking to Manchester, we are speaking to the country.”

With no announcement this week, it may be that the fate of HS2 is not clarified until Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement — which won’t take place until Nov. 22.

The HS2 scheme has already faced delays, cost increases and cuts. The planned eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds was axed in late 2021.

In March, the government announced that building the line between Birmingham and Crewe, and then onto Manchester, would be delayed for at least two years.

The last official estimate on HS2 costs, excluding the cancelled eastern section, added up to about £71bn. But this was in 2019 prices so it does not account for the rise in costs for materials and wages since then.

The possible scrapping of the leg to Manchester has also raised concerns over other plans to improve rail services across northern England.

The Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme plans to speed up links between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds through a mixture of new and upgraded lines.

However, these plans include a section of the HS2 line from Manchester Airport to Manchester Piccadilly, as well as planned upgrades to Manchester Piccadilly station.

Earlier this week, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said scrapping the HS2 extension to Manchester risked “ripping the heart” out of the NPR scheme. — BBC

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