Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

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Rishi Sunak dodged questions over the future of HS2 as he spoke to local radio stations across the country.

The prime minister was repeatedly asked about the northern leg of the high speed rail line between Birmingham and Manchester.

He was also quizzed on whether the route would now end in the west London suburb of Old Oak Common rather than Euston, as reports continue to surface that he plans to scrap the next phase of the project due to soaring costs.

Read more: PM pushed in series of live interviews – follow politics live

In a tough exchange on BBC Radio Manchester, Mr Sunak refused to give a yes or no answer to the presenter, saying: “I’m not speculating on future things.”

But he hinted at more support for the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail, running east to west, adding: “Having greater frequency, greater capacity and shorter journey times… will make the biggest difference to unlocking the massive potential across the North”.

He also appeared to defend the viability of Old Oak Common on BBC Three Counties Radio, saying it had “very strong” connections into the capital.

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Earlier this week, Rishi Sunak again refused to confirm the future of HS2’s northern leg.

HS2 was first touted by Labour in 2009, before it was signed off by the Tory Lib Dem coalition government. It was designed to connect the South, the Midlands and the North of England with state-of-the-art infrastructure.

If the Manchester leg were to be axed, it would be the latest watering down of the project, with the eastern leg to Leeds scrapped entirely and work between Birmingham and Crewe delayed due to the impact of inflation.

Some estimates have put the total cost at more than £100bn, while the project has been rated “unachievable” by the infrastructure watchdog.

The line has numerous defenders, from Tory grandees like Lord Heseltine and former chancellor George Osborne, through to Labour’s regional mayors, who have criticised the government for not involving them in the decision over its future.

An announcement on the scrapping of phase two and the London terminus had been expected this week – but it has yet to surface just days before the Conservative Party heads to Manchester for its annual conference.

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Speaking to Sky News, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said people in the North were being ‘treated like second class citizens’.

Almost a year to the day former prime minister Liz Truss faced a battering on BBC local stations, Mr Sunak carried out the same pre-conference media round, beginning with BBC York, which asked him if he had “betrayed” the North over HS2.

“No,” he replied. “I think what people will see… [is] we’re investing record amounts in improving infrastructure but also delivering levelling up. I mean making sure that our town centres and high streets get the investment that they need.

“That’s really important and making sure that, as I say, transport infrastructure is being improved.”

Asked if the northern leg would go ahead by BBC West Midlands, the prime minister said: “There are spades in the ground right now at the moment making sure that we complete the first part of this line from Birmingham to central London, and we are absolutely getting on with that, that is important.”

But he deflected to talk about other forms of travel, saying: “We are investing in the transport that they use every day, making sure that the roads that people are using, probably right now as they are driving to work or taking their kids to school, are free of potholes, that the bus services that we have are reliable and frequent.”

Read more:
What is HS2 and why are parts being delayed?
Ex-minister calls for inquiry into HS2 as he warns of ‘disastrous’ consequences
Johnson and Cameron criticise move to ditch HS2 to Manchester

Mr Sunak’s third outing came on BBC Manchester and presenter Anna Jameson accused him of “trying to get off” the HS2 topic, asking: “Let’s end this right here right now, tell the people of Greater Manchester, are you scrapping the HS2 line between Birmingham and Manchester?”

The PM replied: “I know there is a lot of speculation on this but we have already got spades in the ground on the first bit of HS2 and what we are doing is getting on with delivering it.”

Pushed on the northern leg, he said: “It is always right that the government is looking at things to make sure we are doing things in a way that creates value for money.

“But what I would say is HS2 is one of the many things we are doing to level up across our country and is one of the many things we are doing to invest in the north and in transport infrastructure in the north.”

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Accusing him of “going off topic”, the presenter asked him to “keep focus”, adding: “We are straight talking people in the north it is a yes or a no, are you scrapping the HS2 line between Birmingham and Manchester?”

But again Mr Sunak insisted he would not be “speculating on future things”. However, he again put the focus on the need for greater connectivity east to west, hinting it could be on offer if the north to south plan is ditched.

“Connectivity across northern towns and cities is important,” added the prime minister. “I’ve said it for years.

“I know that that connectivity across the Pennines is not good enough. And it’s not just Liverpool to Manchester, it’s all the way across the North. And that is probably the thing that will drive the most growth, create the most jobs if we can get that right. And that’s why we are investing in doing that. But we obviously need to do more.”

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Speaking to Sky News ahead of Mr Sunak’s interviews, transport minister Richard Holden said it was right the government carefully considers spending around the high-speed rail project.

On BBC Three Counties Radio, Mr Sunak was pushed over the final destination for HS2 in the capital, with presenter Babs Michel asking: “Where is Old Oak Common? Because it appears [it] is closer to Brentford than Trafalgar Square, so what is the point… it doesn’t help us at all.”

But the prime minister appeared to defend it as a sensible place to terminate the link, saying: “Old Oak Common is on the new Elizabeth Line and actually the connections from Old Oak Common to most London destinations, whether that is Heathrow, the City, the West End, Canary Wharf, are actually very strong.

“Obviously it is a new station that people won’t be familiar with, but its connectivity into all those areas is very strong.”

During the interviews, Mr Sunak was also challenged on crumbling concrete, waiting times for ambulances – and whether he wanted to buy Reading Football Club.

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