Sadiq Khan has been “inundated” with concerns from London business leaders about the threat to HS2, he revealed on Wednesday, as he joined other “metro” mayors in calling for the high-speed link to be safeguarded.
He said it was hard to think of a bigger waste of taxpayers’ money if the line, as feared, is not extended south to Euston or north beyond Birmingham.
Mr Khan was one of five Labour mayors who warned on Wednesday that failure to deliver in full on HS2 would “leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose”.
Mr Khan, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram gathered in Leeds to issue a joint plea to the Prime Minister not to cut HS2 further.
Mr Khan told a meeting of the Transport for the North board in Leeds: “The idea that the end terminal in perpetuity would be not in Euston but six miles west in Old Oak Common is just staggering.
“There is only one line that connects Old Oak Common with other parts of London - the Elizabeth line. To get from Birmingham to the centre of London on HS2 will take longer than the current West Coast Main Line.”
He said failing to have Euston as the HS2 terminus would result in “permanent blight” on homes, businesses and communities that already suffered years of disruption.”
He said a line that only linked Old Oak Common with Birmingham and not go further north would not deliver the full economic benefits that were promised.
“I have been inundated with businesses over the last five or six days, concerned about what has been leaked. I have been bombarded by business leaders worried about the uncertainty, lack of ambition and chaos that it engenders from long-term planning not being carried through.”
Mr Khan added: “I can’t think of a better example of public policy failure, and a worse example of squandering of taxpayers’ money, than if plans that have been leaked appaer to be true in relation to HS2 not happening north of Birmingham and not happening to the centre of London.
“You have the full support of London in relation to your concerns, your anger and your frustrations.”
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.
The joint statement revealed the five mayors have been “inundated” with concerns from constituents about the potential “economic damage that will result from any decision not to proceed with HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) in full”.
The statement said: “Investment in transport infrastructure is a huge driver of economic growth – creating jobs, increasing productivity and opening up new business opportunities. HS2 and NPR will deliver this right across our regions.
“This government has said repeatedly that it is committed to levelling up in the Midlands and North. Failure to deliver HS2 and NPR will leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose and cause huge economic damage in London and the South, where construction of the line has already begun.”
The five mayors 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.
“This does nothing for the North of England. The full Y-shaped HS2 plan was designed to deliver economic benefit right across the country not only between the North and London but between Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham. All of these gains look set to be lost if media reports this week are to be believed.”
Rishi Sunak has faced political backlash over reports he is weighing axing the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2 amid soaring costs.
On Tuesday, Home Office minister Chris Philp said Mr Sunak was reviewing how the cost of HS2 could be “controlled” but that no decision had been made on whether to axe or delay the rail project’s northern leg.
On top of the meeting with the Northern mayors, London mayor Mr Khan is also expected to speak at a Transport for the North board meeting about the benefits of the project for London and the South East.
Reports have suggested that Mr Sunak has been warned the price tag for the high-speed railway may have soared past £100 billion, even though ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project and even axed the Leeds leg.
Construction delays of up to two years between Birmingham and Crewe could postpone central London service until the 2040s, as a two-year pause at Euston due to soaring costs will leave Old Oak Common as the only London station for Birmingham Curzon Street services from 2029 to 2033.
Mr Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said that curtailing the project would be a “decision of epic proportions for our part of the world”.
Manchester City Council Leader Councillor Bev Craig (@BevCraig) and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (@MayorofGM) have sent an urgent joint letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the future of HS2.
You can read this letter at https://t.co/l7QMf71QSQ pic.twitter.com/m0x9CPJFV4
— Manchester City Council (@ManCityCouncil) September 25, 2023
However, in a letter to Mr Sunak, he and Manchester City council leader Bev Craig also said they were willing to discuss delaying the northern leg of HS2 if the Government commits to building an east-west route.
“If you are adamant on making changes to the scheme, we could be open to a discussion about prioritising the Northern section of the line, between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, so that it enables NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail) to be built first,” they wrote.
“We believe the north of England needs new north-south and east-west rail infrastructure and should not be forced to choose between them in the same way that London hasn’t been forced such a choice.”
Meanwhile, several senior Conservatives, including former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, have warned that scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2 would be a “gross act of vandalism” and “abandon” the North and Midlands.
Another ex-chancellor, Lord Hammond, told The Times the project risked becoming a white elephant if it was not finished, while former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that scaling it back would be “completely wrong”.
🚄 "Giving the North the railways we deserve is at the core of making Levelling Up a reality."
✍️ @MetroMayorSteve and leaders across the Liverpool City Region and Cheshire have written to @10DowningStreet about the future of HS2. pic.twitter.com/uiUs0aLLp4
— Mayor Steve Rotheram (@LCRMayor) September 26, 2023
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 he 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 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, they 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.