HS2: scheme defended as fears mount that second phase ‘in jeopardy’

Trade bodies have warned against scaling down HS2 amid speculation that imminent cuts to government spending could see plans changed.

Market turmoil and pressures on the government have led to chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng bringing forward an announcement on how he will balance public finances following last month’s package of tax cuts. This week the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that his plans could lead to £60bn of public spending cuts.

Kwarteng will now make his announcement on 31 October rather than 23 November as planned.

There has been speculation that the phase of the project between Manchester and Birmingham – where substantive work has not yet started – could be under threat.

A spokesperson for the Railway Industry Association said it has heard the western leg of phase 2b, between Manchester and Birmingham, may be “in jeopardy”.

“Unless we get reassurance from the government on HS2 there will be heightened uncertainty for both rail businesses working on the project and for the communities the line will serve. What’s more, this lack of certainty impacts the ability of rail suppliers to invest and plan for the future, limiting the jobs, investment and economic growth they could otherwise provide,” they said.

Conservative politicians including MP for North West Leicestershire Andrew Bridgen and Lord Wolfson have called for HS2 to be cut to help balance the books.

Meanwhile prime minister Liz Truss has merged the role of HS2 minister into a wider rail minister brief, raising questions about her dedication to the project.

Kevin Foster was named as HS2 minister this week. He has taken on the role alongside a number of other responsibilities for the industry including rail workforce reform and Network Rail. Under former prime minister Boris Johnson, Andrew Stephenson held the brief of HS2 minister, along with a much shorter list of other responsibilities.

Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner said any move to cut HS2 would be “completely counter-intuitive” and would also “signal a profound loss of faith in the future of UK plc as a high-growth, world-leading economy”.

He added: “HS2 is a transformational scheme and a vital investment in Britain’s future, which will not only drive economic growth for years to come but will enable the government to deliver on its 2019 manifesto pledge of levelling up the UK.”

In November last year Johnson cancelled plans to build the eastern leg of phase 2 of the project, between Birmingham and Leeds. Johnson’s government later abandoned plans to build the Golborne Link, which was set to connect Crewe and Manchester.

Last week HS2 launched its first tunnel boring machine (TBM) in London, while the TBMs constructing HS2’s longest tunnel under the Chilterns made it to the halfway point this month.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “There are no plans to cancel HS2; this vital project is already well under way, significantly contributing to Britain’s economic growth and setting the foundations for additional schemes as Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

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