LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (pix) has insisted he is committed to “levelling up” despite declining to back building a high-speed rail line to the north of England, reported German news agency (dpa).
He is considering scrapping or delaying the leg of the co-called HS2 project from Birmingham to Manchester in response to soaring costs.
Grant Shapps, recently promoted to defence secretary from his transport role, said it would be “crazy” not to reconsider the project considering the UK’s economic situation.
But former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, both from Sunak’s Conservatives, are among senior figures warning that axing the Manchester route would be a “gross act of vandalism” which would mean “abandoning” the North and Midlands.
Visiting a community centre in Hertfordshire, the prime minister faced questions over how he could be committed to levelling up – a policy aimed at reducing imbalances between regions – while considering rowing back on the rail project.
“I’m not going to comment on that type of speculation. But what I would say is we’re absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country, not just in the North but in the Midlands, in all other regions of our fantastic country,” he said.
“And transport infrastructure is a key part of that, not just big rail projects, but also local projects, improving local bus services, fixing pot holes, all of these things make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives.”
Pressed whether it will go ahead, Sunak insisted: “This kind of speculation that people are making is not right. We’ve got spades in the ground, we’re getting on and delivering.”
But he stressed that connecting towns in the north of England, east to west, was a “really important part” of creating jobs and growth in the region.
Osborne and Lord Heseltine, writing in The Times, warned that governments “are remembered for what they build and create”.
“Make this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed,” they said.
If the northern section is cancelled, after a southern section was already agreed, “the remaining stump, little more than a shuttle service from Birmingham to a London suburb, would become an international symbol of our decline.”
Conservative lawmaker Steve Brine said it would look “odd” to scrap the scheme in the days before MPs and activists arrive in Manchester for their annual conference on Sunday.
He also said he hoped the line would run all the way into central London rather than stopping short at Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.
“It would seem very odd for us to be in Manchester next week and can a project to Manchester,” Brine told the BBC.
“It would seem very odd not to bring this new rail line into central London and just stop it at Old Oak Common.
“So I really hope a way can be found to do this.”
The Sunday Telegraph reported the potential cost of the high-speed rail scheme – which Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt has said is “out of control” – had increased by £8 billion (US$9.8 billion) just for the initial London-Birmingham stretch, up from £45 billion.
The prime minister and Hunt are reported to be meeting to discuss the situation in the coming days.
Former transport secretary Shapps used broadcast interviews on Sunday to say the government could not write an “open-ended cheque” if costs were “inexorably going higher and higher”.
In a hint that a delay rather than an outright cancellation could be an option, Shapps said: “I think the sequencing of what happens next is a perfectly legitimate question.”
The Independent reported the northern leg of the scheme could be pushed back by up to seven years. -Bernama