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Tories Vow To Cling Onto HS2 Legislation To Protect Northern Powerhouse Rail

Phase one of HS2 construction (Alamy)

3 min read

Rishi Sunak could face opposition from his own backbenches if HS2 legislation currently making its way through Parliament is abandoned as a result of any cancellation or delay of the route to Manchester.

It is widely expected that Sunak plans to delay or scrap the long-planned second branch of the high speed rail link between Manchester and Birmingham in a bid to curtail spiralling costs. Downing Street has refused to comment on "speculation" but has pointedly not denied that such plans are on the table.

John Stevenson, chair of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs told PoliticsHome that government “cannot and must not” get rid of the bill that would allow for the high-speed railway line to be built between Manchester and Crewe because within the legislation are provisions that would help the east west railway line across the north, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) be built. 

The HS2 line from Birmingham to Manchester was confirmed when it passed through Parliament in early 2021. However, the legislation for the Crewe to Manchester leg, which would also facilitate NPR, has not yet passed all of the stages in the Commons and Lords. PoliticsHome understands that there are a number of Tory MPs who would be opposed to that bill being scrapped, and at least one is known to have made their feelings known to Downing Street. 

Stevenson believes that both HS2 and NPR are important. The east-west railway project is intended to connect cities across the north of England, increasing capacity and improving journey times and frequency. 

He insisted that the HS2 legislation is "critical" to NPR, “so the government cannot and must not abandon that legislation". 

“Even if they postpone or reprioritise HS2, we need that legislation to get Northern Powerhouse Rail,” Stevenson added.  

The government has faced fierce resistance from a number of northern leaders over the possibility of scaling back HS2, including Labour mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham.

In a letter to the Prime Minister on Monday, Burnham said that the north of England “needs new north-south and east-west rail infrastructure”, however, if the government wants to make changes to the scheme he would be open to a discussion that would prioritise the parts that would allow NPR to be built “first”.  

“Whilst it is reasonable for any Government to want to ensure HS2 delivers value for money, and that prices do not escalate out of control, the North of England should not have to pay for the Government’s mismanagement of the HS2 budget,” Burnham wrote, alongside Manchester City Council leader Bev Craig.

Writing for the Times today, former Conservative chancellor George Osborne and former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine said it would be an “act of huge economic self-harm” to cancel the route to Manchester and not run it into central London. 

“Governments are remembered for what they build and create,” they wrote.

“Make this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed.” 

Earlier on Monday, Sunak declined to comment on speculation over the future of the railway line, but said that the government is “absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country”. 

Speaking on a visit to a community centre, he said: “This kind of speculation that people are making is not right. We’ve got spades in the ground, we’re getting on and delivering.” 

 

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