The levelling up agenda is “steaming ahead”, a government minister has insisted – despite being unable to say whether the HS2 rail link will go to Manchester as planned.
Policing minister Chris Philp said there were “spades in the ground” and “track being laid” for the rail line that will link London to the North in phases – but he said did not know “exactly what is or is not being considered”.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Philp said: “I’m a Home Office minister, so I’m afraid I don’t know about exactly what is or is not being considered. But I do know that work is ongoing as we speak to construct the line.”
Pressed on why he did not know the details as a member of the government, he said: “Well, I can tell you that work on the line is ongoing at the moment. It is being built and those trains are going to go very fast from London, going North as soon as the line is finished.”
Fresh doubts have been thrown over the future of HS2 after Downing Street refused to guarantee the high speed line will run to Manchester – amid reports that Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are considering scrapping the second stage.
The questions marks over Manchester have prompted anger from politicians – including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who said: “The southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North left with Victorian infrastructure. Levelling up? My a***.”
Asked about Mr Burnham’s comments on Sky News this morning. Mr Philp said: “There is £3bn this year being invested in levelling up in the North.
“There are new rail projects, more local rail projects being invested in the North.”
“The government is moving departments up into the North. So the levelling up agenda is steaming ahead.”
HS2 delays to cost at least £266m
It comes after The Independent reported ministers were considering shelving the northern phase amid concerns about spiralling costs and severe delays.
The Independent said a cost estimate revealed that the government has already spent £2.3bn on stage two of the railway from Birmingham to Manchester, but that ditching the northern phase could save up to £34bn.
The newspaper said the documents were discussed at a meeting in Downing Street on Tuesday and suggested the £2.3bn was now not recoverable even if it is cancelled.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “I can’t comment on speculation around a leaked document. It is obviously standard process for departments to discuss the phasing of major projects like HS2 … but the work is already under way,” he said.
Asked whether the prime minister was committed to the line going to Manchester, the spokesman said: “We are committed to HS2, to the project.
“I can’t comment on the speculation that’s a result of a photograph. We are as you know looking at the rephasing of the work in the best interests of passengers and taxpayers.”
HS2 explained: What is it and why are parts being delayed?
HS2 unearths unexpected treasure
Signs that the leg to the northern city may be in trouble came when the DfT confirmed in March that work on the crucial leg between Birmingham and Crewe – which is then due to continue to Manchester – would have to be put on hold because of the impact of inflation.
It meant that services were not going to extend to Manchester until the 2040s.
Delivery of the high-speed railway has been a core pledge of the Conservative government, but it has been plagued by delays and ever-increasing costs.
The initial opening date of 2026 has fallen back to 2033, while cost estimates have spiralled from about £33bn in 2010 to £71bn in 2019 – excluding the final eastern leg from the West Midlands to the East Midlands.
It is not just the northern section of the project that has encountered trouble, as there are also doubts about the future of Euston station in London.