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The future of Britain’s High Speed 2 rail project was hit with further uncertainty on Sunday after one of Labour’s most senior figures refused to commit to building the northern section of the line to Manchester just days after ministers cast similar doubts on the beleaguered project.
Pat McFadden, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister and election co-ordinator, said he wanted to see the revised price tag of HS2 later this year when it is adjusted for spiralling inflation before recommitting to the scheme.
“Those prices haven’t been raised since 2019, with quite a lot of inflation since then, so I want to see what happens in the coming months,” he told the BBC. Asked whether Labour was still committed to completing the “full original route” of HS2, he replied: “I want to see what this costs and we’ll make those decisions when it comes to the manifesto.”
McFadden’s comments come despite Labour’s “national policy forum” publishing a document on Friday pledging the party would deliver HS2 “in full, unlocking billions in economic growth”.
On Saturday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had echoed similar caution in comments to the Financial Times, saying the party “remains committed” to HS2 but adding: “I don’t know what the government are going to say . . . we’ve got to wait and see what they’re going to say, but they’ve made a complete mess of it.”
Speculation about the northern section of HS2 between Birmingham and Manchester started last week after the government refused to commit to building it following a meeting between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt to identify further potential savings.
HS2’s price tag has more than doubled from the original budget of £33bn a decade ago when the line was originally envisaged to run from London to Birmingham before splitting into two sections to Manchester and Leeds.
The ruling Conservatives have cut it back or delayed parts of it in an effort to bring the costs under control, including scrapping most of the eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds.
Yet the estimated cost for the overall project has soared from £37.5bn in 2013 to more than £70bn in 2019 prices. Later this year the government is due to update the costings to reflect higher inflation, which is expected to push the price tag up by tens of billions of pounds.
The comments by Labour’s leadership reflect a determination to avoid expensive unilateral spending pledges ahead of the general election expected next year with the party currently enjoying a strong lead over the Conservatives.
“If the government cancels something massive, it turns a previous [Labour] policy of building something the government was committed to into a massive spending commitment,” said Tom Hamilton, a former Labour adviser.
Northern Labour and business leaders have been adamant that the Manchester HS2 connection is essential for the region’s economy.
Manchester council’s leader Bev Craig said on Thursday that “tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds of investment” in the city relied on “certainty” around the project’s delivery, including the extra rail capacity it would bring.
“If anything the scheme should be accelerated to minimise costs and ensure that the benefits are felt more quickly,” she added. “As a city, as a region, and as a country we cannot afford to be left behind.”
Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership lobby group of businesses, said the private sector was “looking for certainty from all the main political parties on HS2”.