Sunak warned he is ‘risking cohesion of country’ as Labour mayors meet over HS2

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Rishi Sunak has been warned that he is “risking the cohesion” of the country, as Labour mayors met in the north of England to discuss concerns about the fate of HS2.

Labour mayors Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram gathered in Leeds on Wednesday to issue a joint plea to the Prime Minister not to cut HS2 further.

Ministers continue to face questions about the fate of the high-profile and expensive project, amid a political backlash over reports the Government is weighing axing the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2 over soaring costs.

The local politicians said that they were open to a “conversation” on the timetable for the project, but complained that the north of England was currently “in the dark” about the next steps.

Mr Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, warned that an adverse decision risked turning the North-South divide into a “canyon”.

“We will have a conversation about timetables and re-phasing, but do not pull the plug on this infrastructure. Do not pull the plug on this investment,” he told the PA news agency.

“If they build this line, not even from central London but outer London through the Home Counties to the West Midlands, basically it will become a permanent symbol of the places that Whitehall cares about. It would be a huge message to the north of England that we just don’t feature in their thinking.

“And honestly, I think it will build a real groundswell of opinion for people here to say ‘No, we’re just not having this anymore, we’re not having a country that is run like this’.

“We deserve equal treatment here in the North with other parts of the country and seriously I think Whitehall are really risking the cohesion of the country if they don’t take a decision that is seen to be fair for everybody.”

Ahead of the meeting, the mayors issued a shared statement to express dismay at the prospect of the UK Government scrapping the rail project’s northern leg and warned that it would leave the north of England with “Victorian” transport infrastructure.

London mayor Mr Khan, who travelled from the capital for the gathering, is also due to speak at a Transport for the North board meeting about the benefits of the project for London and the South East.

He told PA: “It will be damaging to London and the South East having a station that’s not in the centre of our city. It will be damaging to London and the South East not going north of Birmingham.

“But, also, we will be a laughing stock if basically we are left with a shuttle service from Birmingham Curzon Street to six miles west of central London.”

Sir Keir Starmer has faced questions about Labour’s own position on the fate of HS2 and whether it is fully committed to the current plans for the project.

Mr Khan said that the Opposition cannot “write a blank cheque for 18 months’ time”.

“What they’re right to do, though, is to join us in putting the Government’s feet to the fire in relation to confirming what their plans are for HS2. This uncertainty is no good for anybody,” he added.

The five mayors have together urged the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to be delivered in full to ensure “not only North-South but West-East connectivity between Liverpool and Hull, via Manchester Airport”, which they say must be a non-negotiable.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer insisted on Wednesday that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt would “listen to a wide variety of voices” on the issue.

It comes amid speculation that 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 the Prime Minister 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 has 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, it 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.