The Labour mayor of Greater Manchester said the PM’s decision to scrap the northern leg – first revealed by The Independent – was a “hammer blow”, but still hopes the key section can be built.
He and others are urging the PM to bring back legislation sanctioning HS2 infrastructure so work can begin on a new link between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester airport which could be used by east-west projects across the North.
As part of the government’s promised “Network North” replacements for HS2, Mr Sunak has pledged £12bn for faster east-west rail connectivity between Manchester and Liverpool.
Northern leaders hope the money will be used to build the high-speed Manchester airport link – but trust is said to be in “limited supply” after HS2 was axed at the Tory conference and the government revealed plans to sell off land.
Mr Burnham told The Independent there was a “resounding case” for bringing back the HS2 bill to ensure the Piccadilly-airport link gets built, as well as other Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) projects.
“The scrapping of HS2 to Manchester was not only a hammer blow to north-south connectivity but has thrown ambitions for proper east-west improvements into jeopardy as well,” said the mayor.
“The government now needs to demonstrate their commitment to delivering NPR by reintroducing the bill and working with local leaders on a plan which delivers this much-needed infrastructure,” Mr Burnham said. “Failure to safeguard this bill risks a decade of delay for NPR, with our Victorian rail network taking the strain.”
Bev Craig, Labour leader of Manchester City Council, also urged Mr Sunak not to “throw away the painstaking work” done on the bill approving infrastructure for HS2.
“It’s vital that the government don’t compound the damage caused to the North by the short-sighted cancellation of HS2,” she said.
Ms Craig added: “Scrapping the bill now would also throw away years of detailed work and undermine the potential for a more forward-thinking future government to revive the Birmingham-Manchester leg.”
Henri Murison, chief executive at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said bringing back the hybrid bill used for HS2 would show that ministers “are fully seized of the importance of completing the work of getting the powers from parliament to start building the new line from Manchester [Piccadilly] to Manchester airport”.
He added: “This is critical as it is the first phase of the new line which will be built as part of the NPR network, enabling more capacity and frequency from Yorkshire and the North East to both the airport and Liverpool.”
No 10 refused to say whether legislation needed for northern rail projects would be mentioned in the King’s Speech on Tuesday. But senior Tory MP John Stevenson, chairman of the party’s Northern Research Group, said: “I have had an indication that the government wants to [bring back the bill].
Mr Stevenson added: “We want the Manchester to Liverpool link to go ahead. And it will be down to parliamentary procedure to keep the bit in the legislation that is required to continue east-west projects at pace.”
A source close to rail projects in the North said: “Trust is in very limited supply – so we need to see the government is serious about the new [Manchester] line. The bill is a way of building confidence. It’s a test of how genuine the government is about Network North.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “Our Network North plan included £12bn to better connect Manchester to Liverpool, which would allow the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail as previously planned, and we will set out the next steps in due course.”
It comes as Mr Sunak’s ministers face the threat of legal action from the rail industry and local authority leader if they push ahead with the sale of land bought for HS2. They are thought to be considering a judicial review if the government tries to sell the land too soon.
Some in the industry still hope a Labour government – or the future government of whatever party – can revive Phase 2 of the HS2 north of Birmingham. But Labour leader Keir Starmer has said he cannot promise to “simply reverse” Tory plans after they had “taken a wrecking ball to this project”.
The Sunak government has been accused of “salting the earth” by planning a quick sale of HS2 land for the Phase 2a section between Birmingham to Crewe – though rail industry sources Phase 2b land sales wouldn’t begin until the summer of 2024 at the earliest.
The High Speed Rail Group (HSRG) has warned the government against a plan to sell almost 3,000 acres of land between Birmingham and Crewe “within weeks”.
The industry group said the government would struggle to raise £100m from the sales. “Smart countries keep their options open for the future … we need to protect the option to build it in future when public finances allow,” said an HSRG spokesperson.
Sir John Armitt, the government’s independent adviser on infrastructure, has called on Mr Sunak to pause its “knee-jerk” sale of HS2-related land for up to three years.
However, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has called for “swift” return of land taken for HS2 – urging ministers to “accelerate the process”.