Tory mayor tells Sunak – ‘I have top firms with cash to bail HS2 out’

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A powerful Conservative mayor has challenged Rishi Sunak to spare HS2’s northern leg the axe – telling him private companies would step him to help deliver it in full.

The PM has insisted he will not be forced into “premature decisions” despite expectations the move will finally come on Wednesday – after The Independentfirst revealed plan to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg weeks ago.

The Independent understands from several sources that the Mr Sunak will commit to building HS2 to Euston, rather than allow it terminate in west London suburb of Old Oak Common, after intense lobbying from ministers, business chiefs and mayors.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street said on Tuesday he had “worked very hard” to secure support from top firms to help cut costs but save phase 2 high-speed rail project – which the PM is expected to ditch at his conference speech.

Mr Street said he had spoken with Mr Sunak about the “difficulty” surrounding HS2 – but said a number of private sector companies including Siemens, Arup and EY are willing to help the government deliver the project.

“I said I would help him find a solution,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One. “Hence why we’ve worked very hard in the last few days to bring forward organisations that have done this elsewhere.”

Mr Street would not be drawn on whether he would resign if the Birmingham to Manchester leg is scrapped. But he added that if it was cancelled, he would “put it to [Mr Sunak] that he is actually turning his back on one of the best opportunities for levelling up”.

The influential Tory mayor also said the move to scrap the northern leg would mean “we are turning our back on all of those investors who have invested in the Midlands and the north on the promise of this railway coming”.

The Independent understands that Mr Sunak will say the line will terminate at Euston after outrage it could stop at Old Oak Common. One source close to the discussions said pressure from Mr Street had helped convince the PM that the Birmingham to London line must go into the centre of the capital.

Mr Sunak is expected to hold an emergency cabinet meeting to sign off the measures during his party conference in Manchester, the city most directly hit by the cut to HS2 in the north.

Rishi Sunak tours the Manchester Central convention complex

(PA Wire)

But it remains unclear how much Mr Sunak will give to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) – the east-west rail projects from Liverpool to Hull – as a way of sweeting the pill on HS2’s northern leg.

Those behind HS2 are still hoping the prime minister will commit billions to one section of high-speed from Manchester Piccadilly to Manchester Airport – something that would help boost Northern Powerhouse Rail projects.

With the cost of scrapping the northern leg estimated at £34bn, business chiefs and northern mayors are pushing hard for £15bn from the PM and chancellor Jeremy Hunt that would pay for the Manchester Piccadilly to Manchester Airport leg and other NPR rail infrastructure.

Business leaders and red wall Tory MPs in the Northern Research Group (NRG) are also pushing Mr Sunak to commit to keeping the legislation underpinning HS2 tunnelling – in the hope phase 2 can be revived in future.

Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told The Independent that Mr Sunak must set out the full cost analysis being used to justify ditching HS2’s northern leg and reallocating money to other transport projects.

West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street

(PA Archive)

Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of the Liverpool city region, said Mr Sunak would condemn millions of people across the north to use “creaking infrastructure for generations to come” if he scraps the northern HS2 leg.

“Far from building the Northern Powerhouse, he’s turning us into the Northern Powerless,” he told an event in Manchester on the fringe of Tory conference.

Mr Rotheram added: “We are being offered a false choice between HS2 and NPR and phony promises of jam tomorrow – pretend option between either investment in national infrastructure, or unspecified funding into local transport. Without the Manchester leg of HS2 there is no Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

In a series of broadcast interviews on Tuesday, Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to confirm he was scrapping the northern leg. “As I do with all the things I go through, I take the time to get it right and do what I think is right for the country,” he told Sky News.

“I think it’s right that I’m not going to get forced into making premature decisions. Not on something that’s so important, that costs this country tens of billions of pounds.”

It comes as chancellor Jeremy Hunt accused Mr Street of “speculating” on the decision. Mr Hunt said the Tory mayor is a “fantastic mayor”, adding: “But he is speculating on what he thinks a decision might be, rather than talking about what the actual decision may be.”

The HS2 scheme was given a budget of £55.7bn in 2015 but costs have ballooned, with an estimate of up to £98bn – in 2019 prices – in 2020. Since then soaring inflation will have pushed costs even higher.