Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are looking at how costs of HS2 “can be controlled” and no decision has been taken on whether to axe the northern leg, a minister said.
The prime minister is said to be “alarmed” by the spiralling costs of the high speed rail project, after being presented with figures suggesting the overall price could pass £100bn if it is constructed in full.
Asked about the reports, Chris Philp, policing minister, told Sky News: “Well it’s [the cost] gone up a lot. It’s roughly tripled, I think, since it was first conceived.
“So no decisions have been taken about the remaining stages of HS2 but I do know the chancellor and prime minister are looking at how the cost can be controlled.“
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He also insisted the people of Manchester are “definitely not” second-class citizens, as Mayor Andy Burnham has claimed following speculation the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the journey is set to be scrapped.
“The commitment to the Midlands, the North, the levelling up agenda is absolutely undimmed,” Mr Philp said.
“What this review is about is making sure the costs are controlled and I think any taxpayer anywhere in the country would want to see that kind of prudence apply.”
Ministers have refused to guarantee the HS2 line to Manchester will go ahead as planned since a report in The Independent this month said it was due to be axed because of rising costs.
Mr Sunak, who on Monday did nothing to quell fears he is preparing to either scrap or delay the leg, has told allies he is not prepared to watch the cost continue to rise, according to The Times.
The newspaper said he is concerned about a lack of cost controls and high salaries at the company overseeing the project after he was shown figures suggesting the overall price could top £100bn.
Mr Sunak is also said to be considering terminating the line in a west London suburb rather than in Euston, in the centre of the capital, to save money.
However, the possible downscaling of the project has been met with a fierce backlash from across the political spectrum.
Tory former chancellor George Osborne and ex-Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine were among grandees warning that scrapping the Manchester route would be a “gross act of vandalism” which would mean “abandoning” the North and Midlands.
Norman Baker, a former Lib Dem transport minister who signed off HS2 during the coalition government, called for an inquiry into the chaos of the project “to make sure it doesn’t happen again”.
The new US owners of Birmingham City football club joined a chorus of business criticism warning that limiting HS2 would damage confidence in government promises to deliver long-term plans.
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It was initially thought a decision on HS2 would be made ahead of the Conservative Party conference this weekend, but the prime minister is reportedly going to delay an announcement until the autumn statement in November.
He could announce a string of regional transport improvements in an effort to limit the political fallout, reports suggested.
Esther McVey, the Conservative MP for Tatton in Cheshire and a long-standing critic of HS2, said she would prefer to see investment “go into the local infrastructure across the North” so that cities are better connected.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that HS2 is “sucking the money and the life out of our local transport”.
Ms McVey said: “Thank goodness that the prime minister is looking at HS2’s spiralling costs, because what might have been feasible at £37bn really is not at £120bn going northwards.
“Things have significantly changed since lockdown. People will now sooner jump on a Zoom to save time and money. So it’s the right thing to do and yes, stop it as soon as possible.”