Britain’s business bosses have urged Rishi Sunak to stop “dumbling” and finally reveal the future of HS2 after the Prime Minister refused 12 times to rule out abolishing the northern part.
There are growing fears that the ongoing uncertainty will lead to investors later withdrawing from the UK The Independent revealed plans by Mr Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to downsize the high-speed line.
In an agonizing round of interviews with local BBC radio, Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to commit to Phase 2 – instead suggesting that fixing potholes was “priority number one” and blaming Covid for the rail failure .
In a scathing message to Mr Sunak, Jürgen Maier, deputy chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “Stop procrastinating – get on with it. Fluctuations and delays drive up costs.”
This is what the ex-Siemens boss said The Independent that global investors were unsettled by the lack of clarity about the future of HS2. “It is damaging to the companies directly involved, who may have to scale back, and it damages the confidence of investors looking to find the right path in the world.”
He added: “They look at our lack of industrial strategy and wonder whether they can invest in the UK. Conversations take place in every meeting room. The shaking is incredibly unhelpful.”
Manchester Airports Group became the latest major business group to call on Mr Sunak to “be clear”, urging him on Thursday to commit to full construction of the northern section.
Ken O’Toole, the airports’ new chief executive, said the north had been “held back for too long” by the lack of an integrated transport network. He said the Sunak government “must clearly support these transformative plans”.
Business leaders were frustrated as Mr Sunak repeatedly dodged questions about the future of HS2 and blamed Covid for the failing railways in a series of awkward interviews before the conference.
The Prime Minister told BBC radio that the pandemic had resulted in everyone being “off the rail network”, which had made running train services “very difficult”.
The Tory leader said there was “a spade in the ground” on Phase 1 – but refused to say whether he was committed to Phase 1, which The Independent revealed Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt are considering scrapping or scrapping to step into the tall grass to save money.
Henrietta Brealey, head of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, told Mr Sunak: “Be bold, have vision and be confident we can do this.” Don’t waver at the crucial moment. It can do so much more than the initial investment.”
“The uncertainty is deeply frustrating,” she said The Independent – and points to the 400 businesses and 8,000 jobs in the West Midlands connected to the HS2 supply chain. “Companies demand clarity – they cannot commit to jobs and investment for Phase 2.”
With Mr Sunak not expected to unveil his cost-cutting plan until next month, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce’s Chris Fletcher also called on Mr Sunak to end the “madness” of uncertainty and fully commit to the northern leg.
“For some strange reason, successive governments, usually controlled by the Treasury, have found it impossible to just leave it alone and just let it build,” he said. “The resulting delays, changes and rescheduling have resulted in additional, unnecessary costs.”
Mark Reynolds, the boss of the company building London’s new HS2 station, also delivered a sharp message to Mr Sunak about “short-termism” – saying: “We will all end up worse off” if the project is scaled back.
The chief executive of Mace Group, the firm tasked with redeveloping Euston, said The Independent: “Fundamentally, companies – particularly in construction – need certainty and clarity to take the investment risk…Companies have made important decisions based on the assumption that much-needed new rail capacity will be built.”
Mr Reynolds added: “A short-term decision to scrap this will leave many companies across the country unable to convince shareholders or investors that investing in expansion or growth is the right choice in the future – and then “We’re all worse off in the end.”
Kate Nicholls, Britain’s hospitality chief, said pubs, clubs and restaurants were “eagerly awaiting” Mr Sunak’s decision. She said Northern Powerhouse Rail was “just as important, if not more important than HS2” for businesses as connecting northern cities would be a huge “boost”.
Meanwhile, the former HS2 chairman hit back at Mr Sunak’s government’s cost demands and blamed “short-sighted” Tory ministers for the high-speed rail project’s skyrocketing prices.
Mr Sunak is believed to be keen to cut costs – sources close to the Prime Minister claim HS2 executives have behaved like “kids with the golden credit card”.
But former HS2 chairman Allan Cook – who led the project between 2018 and 2021 – accused the government of trying to evade responsibility and claimed it would be a “scandalous waste of money” for Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt to do so border would end Birmingham.
“During my time as chairman, Treasury and Transport representatives sat on the HS2 board,” Mr Cook said post. Asked about the idea that executives were “kids with the golden credit card,” he said: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mr Sunak is understood to be considering an option to quell a Tory backlash by throwing a wrench into the Birmingham to Manchester route by delaying it for up to seven years.
There were signs he could announce a range of regional transport improvements to limit the political fallout – including bringing forward the Northern Powerhouse Rail between Manchester and Leeds.
Senior Red Wall Tories in the influential Northern Research Group have signaled they are prepared to accept a delay to the northern section of HS2 – as long as the Prime Minister commits to east-west rail projects known as Northern Powerhouse Rail.
The Labor mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has hinted that he might be okay with a delay – if the government commits to east-west routes and builds a section of HS2 between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly.