Failure to build HS2 would be a “disaster” for the economy in the Midlands and north of England, the Treasury has been told.
As a poll reveals that a majority of Tory members want the high-speed rail line cancelled, local government and business leaders have warned that any decision to scrap it would undermine Britain’s “national prosperity for decades to come”.
In a letter to Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, more than 20 key figures from across the north and Midlands, including Andy Street, who as mayor of the West Midlands is the Conservative Party’s most senior directly-elected politician, insisted that the project was already attracting investment and cautioned against any attempt to halt the scheme.
The letter — delivered on Friday — was signed by representatives of local authorities, mayors and businesses in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland, Sheffield and across Cumbria, Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Northumbria.
There is mounting speculation that the £56 billion line could be cancelled by a new Conservative leader when Theresa May stands down. Fifty-seven per cent of Conservative members think the next leader should cancel plans to build HS2 and only 32 per cent believe the railway should continue, according to a YouGov poll for The Times of 858 Tory members between May 10 and 16.
Boris Johnson, who the same poll revealed is the clear favourite to be the next prime minister, is opposed to the scheme. Last year he said he believed other rail projects should take precedence over HS2, adding: “It’s crazy how long it takes to get east-west across the country.” At the time he was slapped down by Sajid Javid, another leadership contender, who said that a huge amount of effort and investment has already gone into HS2.
Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons and another leadership candidate, campaigned against HS2 before joining the government, while Esther McVey has called it a “huge waste” of money.
Ms Truss has confirmed that HS2 will form part of a government spending review later this year and recently insisted that local transport matters most to businesses – seen as a strong hint that cash from the line should be diverted to other upgrades.
The letter, which is also signed by Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, and Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council, acknowledged the problems facing local transport networks. However, it said that “deciding not to proceed with HS2 would hinder, rather than help, efforts to address those challenges”.
“Altogether, city regions around the route have plans to create nearly 500,000 jobs and add billions to the UK economy,” it said. “Poor connections following decades of under-investment in the rail network between our major cities have been holding the UK back for far too long.
“In determining the continued value for money of HS2, it is essential that the spending review avoids making false distinctions between investment in local, regional and national transport infrastructure.”
Under the current plans, a 330-mile line will link London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. Stage one of the line – capable of carrying trains at up to 225mph – is due to open between London and Birmingham in 2026, with completion of the full scheme expected in 2033.
Speculation has mounted that it cannot be delivered within its existing £56 billion budget. Last week, a report from the House of Lords economic affairs committee recommended running trains at lower speeds and terminating them outside central London to cut costs, insisting that savings should be spent on transport upgrades in the north of England.
The government will be forced to answer for the scheme when Lord Berkeley, a Labour peer and former chairman of the Rail Freight Group, questions ministers on the business case for the scheme in the House of Lords tomorrow.
Earlier this year Sir Terry Morgan, a former chairman of HS2, told peers that “nobody knows” what the final cost of HS2 will be.
The government has strongly defended the scheme, which is already being built, with about 7,000 people working on the line. It claims that additional capacity is needed on the main north-south rail route in England – freeing up space on the existing west coast and east coast mainlines for commuter and freight trains.
The letter said: “Now, more than ever, we should be proud to build Europe’s largest infrastructure project without delay. Failure to make a clear commitment to the full delivery of HS2 at this time would be a disaster for our regional economies and our national prosperity for decades to come.”