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Conservative MPs warned the UK government on Monday about the potential consequences of killing off the northern leg of the High Speed 2 project from Birmingham to Manchester.
The intervention comes as Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, are locked in talks over how to cut spiralling costs on the troubled scheme.
The pair are discussing plans under which they could dump both the Birmingham to Manchester section of HS2 and the final stretch of the railway from Old Oak Common in west London to Euston station in the city centre.
During a heated House of Commons debate, Iain Stewart, Conservative chair of the transport select committee, said that running the line from Old Oak Common to Birmingham alone would be an “enormous false economy”.
“Communities would have been enormously impacted for no great benefit,” he said, adding that the government should “either do it properly or don’t do it at all.”
Richard Holden, a junior transport minister sent out to defend the government’s position, said it was right for ministers to be “checking” major policies and signalled that rail was not the government’s only transport priority.
“I am proud of the fact that this government is unashamedly on the side of the taxpayer when we are checking through every single policy that’s put forward, on the side of motorists, on the side of HGV drivers and on the side of bus passengers,” he said.
But he was criticised by several of his own Conservative backbenchers, including Mary Robinson, MP for the Cheadle constituency in Greater Manchester.
She said the UK would only be truly “levelled up” if northern England was given the transport connections it had been promised, referring to the government’s flagship policy designed to address regional economic imbalances.
“In order to unlock economic growth and power up northern productivity, our region must have improved connectivity both to our capital and with a Northern Powerhouse Rail connecting our cities across the north,” she said, in reference to another rail project that Sunak has scaled back.
Sir Jeremy Wright, a former Tory cabinet minister and MP for Kenilworth in the Midlands, said many MPs had seen their neighbourhoods disrupted to make way for the initial stretch of HS2 from London to Birmingham.
“The national gain for HS2 has always been argued to be resulting from it being a network of high-speed rail lines, not a single line,” he said. “If it is a single line, aren’t we in danger of the national gain being extraordinarily limited and the local pain, including to my constituents, being extraordinarily extensive and long-lasting?”
A spokesperson for Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands and a longstanding advocate of the HS2 project, said it made “perfect sense” for senior government ministers to keep the project under review and look at ways to achieve taxpayer value. But he warned: “The business case only stacks up if the line is built in full.”
HS2’s price tag has more than doubled from the original budget of £33bn a decade ago when the line was originally envisaged to run from London to Birmingham before splitting into two sections to Manchester and Leeds.
Ministers have cut it back in an effort to bring the costs under control, including scrapping most of the eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds.
Despite the cuts, the estimated cost for the overall project has soared to more than £70bn in 2019 prices. This year, the government is expected to update the costings to reflect higher inflation.