Sunak warned he is ‘risking cohesion of country’ as Labour mayors meet over HS2


Rishi Sunak has been warned that he is “risking the cohesion” of the country, as Labour mayors met in the north of England to discuss concerns about the fate of HS2.

Labour mayors Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram gathered in Leeds on Wednesday to issue a joint plea to the Prime Minister not to cut HS2 further.

The local politicians said that they were open to a “conversation” on the timetable for the project, but complained that the north of England was currently “in the dark” about the next steps.

HS2 project
Andy Burnham warned the Prime Minister that cuts to HS2 could risk national ‘cohesion’ (Danny Lawson/PA)

“We will have a conversation about timetables and re-phasing, but do not pull the plug on this infrastructure. Do not pull the plug on this investment,” he told the PA news agency.

“If they build this line, not even from central London but outer London through the Home Counties to the West Midlands, basically it will become a permanent symbol of the places that Whitehall cares about. It would be a huge message to the north of England that we just don’t feature in their thinking.

“And honestly, I think it will build a real groundswell of opinion for people here to say ‘No, we’re just not having this anymore, we’re not having a country that is run like this’.

“We deserve equal treatment here in the North with other parts of the country and seriously I think Whitehall are really risking the cohesion of the country if they don’t take a decision that is seen to be fair for everybody.”

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 and warned that it would leave the north of England with “Victorian” transport infrastructure.

He told PA: “It will be damaging to London and the South East having a station that’s not in the centre of our city. It will be damaging to London and the South East not going north of Birmingham.

“But, also, we will be a laughing stock if basically we are left with a shuttle service from Birmingham Curzon Street to six miles west of central London.”

Sir Keir Starmer has faced questions about Labour’s own position on the fate of HS2 and whether it is fully committed to the current plans for the project.

Mr Khan said that the Opposition cannot “write a blank cheque for 18 months’ time”.

“What they’re right to do, though, is to join us in putting the Government’s feet to the fire in relation to confirming what their plans are for HS2. This uncertainty is no good for anybody,” he added.

The five mayors have together 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.

HS2 project
Sadiq Khan with Tracy Brabin and Steve Rotheram in Leeds on Wednesday (Danny Lawson/PA)

He said: “The success of the North is crucial to London’s success.”

Mr Khan said he had been “bombarded” by messages from London-based businesses concerned that the Birmingham to Manchester leg may be cancelled.

He said that, if it was abandoned, “I can’t think of a better example of public policy failure and a worse example of squandering of taxpayers’ money”.

The mayor also discussed the situation in central London, telling the meeting: “The idea that the end terminal in perpetuity would be not in Euston but six miles west in Old Oak Common is just staggering.”

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin told the meeting that to pull the northern leg would be “short-termism in the extreme”.

She said it would be “economic vandalism”, adding: “Business are saying with their hands in the air, this is ridiculous.”

Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, at Arcadis in Leeds
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan at Arcadis in Leeds (Danny Lawson/PA)

It comes amid speculation that 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 the Prime Minister 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 has 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, it 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.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here