Rishi Sunak is expected to face a Commons showdown with MPs over the cancellation of HS2’s northern leg, as he refused to apologise for his decision.
The Prime Minister defied senior Tories and business leaders to scrap HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester, saying “the facts have changed” and the cost of the high-speed rail scheme had “more than doubled”.
MPs and peers will be expected to have a vote to approve the changes after the Department for Transport’s permanent secretary, Dame Bernadette Kelly, said the decision to cancel parts of HS2 “will require primary legislation”.
The Government intends to cancel phase 2a between the West Midlands and Crewe, the phase 2b western leg between Crewe and Manchester, and HS2 east between the West Midlands and the East Midlands.
Mr Sunak promised to use £36 billion of savings to fund a raft of other transport schemes, including several in the north of England.
But the Government was already facing claims of “misleading” the public after an apparent pledge to reopen the Leamside Line in Northumberland was dropped 24 hours later.
The HS2 project has previously received cross-party support in Parliament, with legislation for phase one approved by MPs by 399 votes to 42, majority 357, in 2016.
The High Speed Rail (Crewe-Manchester) Bill cleared its second reading in July 2022 by 205 votes to six, majority 199, although it has made no further progress in the Commons since then.
Dame Bernadette, in a statement released on Thursday entitled “continuing investment in HS2 Phase 1: accounting officer assessment”, noted the estimated cost of the section between London and the West Midlands is between £45 billion and £54 billion.
She added the scope of phase one will be reviewed to develop a “revised cost range for the remaining scope”, adding phase one is “judged to continue to be affordable”.
Under the section “feasibility”, Dame Bernadette wrote: “The decision to cancel parts of the HS2 programme will require primary legislation and required processes to lift or alter safeguarded land will need to be followed.
“The decision has been made in compliance with the public sector equality duty. Some contracts will need to be varied to remove scope relating to the line north of Birmingham to the junction with phase 2a and work on other phases.
“The alternative vision set out by Government for Euston, including the model with private sector funding for the HS2 station, is subject to further work and business case.”
Mr Sunak used his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester to say the line will run from Birmingham to Euston in central London.
The PA news agency understands that this commitment is contingent on a substantial proportion of the cost being met by private funds.
If not enough money is found, HS2 will permanently stop at Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.
Extending HS2 to Euston involves digging a 4.5-mile tunnel from Old Oak Common and building a six-platform station next to the existing West Coast Main Line terminus.
He told BBC Breakfast that the cost of pulling out of the agreements will “broadly balance out” with money recovered from selling land and property acquired for the high-speed railway.
HS2 Ltd figures show £562 million was spent on land and property for HS2 north of Birmingham.
That includes £205 million for phase 2a, £196 million for phase 2b and £161 million for HS2’s eastern leg.
Government figures show a total of £2.3 billion had been spent on those phases as of June.
A £300 million contract for ground works north of Birmingham was awarded last week but it is likely that most if not all of this spending can be withdrawn.
Former Tory prime minister David Cameron said Mr Sunak’s decision would fuel the view that Britain cannot act for the long term and is “heading in the wrong direction”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “No. What I want to say to everybody is that what we’re doing is going to be better for our country.
“You keep using the word scrap but what we’re doing is replacing HS2 with something that’s going to benefit far more people in far more places and far quicker.
“Every penny that would have been spent on this project, £36 billion, is going to be reinvested in every form of transportation, not just heavy rail, and in every part of our country.”
He also denied that the first phase of HS2 would be reduced to a “shuttle service” between London and Birmingham.
Previous governments and the company itself had set out a “very strong” business case for the route as a “standalone project,” according to the Prime Minister.
“For those people now to say that somehow that’s a shuttle service is them not being truthful about what they said previously,” he added.
He said he “couldn’t disagree more” with the suggestion that the move would put investors off.