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Labour says it has obtained a leaked document showing proposed delays to HS2 would end up increasing the cost of the project for the government.
Ministers announced last week that the construction of the northwest sections – from Birmingham to Crewe, then Crewe to Manchester – would be delayed by two years to spread the cost and save money.
But shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said advice written by officials in the Department for Transport had “blown apart” the money-saving claim and “laid bare the consequences of the decision”.
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Brandishing the papers during an urgent question in the Commons, the Labour MP said: “[The transport secretary’s] chief justification was to balance the nation’s books. But here his own department admit what he will not – the delay itself will increase costs.
“They admit it will cost jobs, that construction firms could go bust. And they cannot rule out slashing high-speed trains serving Stoke, Macclesfield and Stafford all together.”
Ms Haigh also said officials warned about the London hub at Euston, saying trains could be forced to terminate on the outskirts of the capital instead until 2041.
“Is there anything more emblematic of this failed government than their flagship levelling up project that neither makes it to the north or to central London,” added the shadow minister.
“Isn’t it time the minister came clean? This absurd plan will hit jobs, hurt growth and cost taxpayers even more.
“Last year they crashed the economy and once again they are asking the country to pay the price… this announcement proves once and for all the Conservatives can’t fix the problem because the Conservatives are the problem.”
Rail minister Huw Merriman said the government did not comment on leaked documents.
But he added: “It is an entirely responsible government approach to balance the commitments that we make… [with] public spending pressures, as there are right now due to the help this government has given to those facing increased energy costs to the continued costs from the pandemic, and therefore to the impact on the amount of borrowing.
“Over £100bn is required each year, or was last year, in order to service the overdraft. That’s greater than the amount we spend on defence.
“It would be entirely irresponsible of any government to look at all of its portfolio without those figures in mind.”
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The Birmingham to Crewe section of HS2 was due for extension between 2030 and 2034 to help boost transport in the north of England.
But last week, transport secretary Mark Harper said the window has now shifted to 2032 to 2036, while services will not extend to Manchester until the 2040s.
Mr Harper also hinted at delays to services coming into Euston.
The original price tag for the project back in 2009 was £37.5bn, but some estimates now put the cost at more than £100bn.
A planned extension to Leeds was already shelved in November 2021.
As well as facing criticism over the delays, the government was attacked for the method of its announcement.
Ministers snuck the news out in a written statement late on Thursday afternoon as parliament was ending its sittings for the week, rather than sending someone to the Commons to explain the decision.
Labour’s Ms Haigh said: “18 months ago they slashed Northern Powerhouse rail, they binned HS2 to Leeds, they sold out the north of England and here we are again – huge changes affecting billions in investment and jobs announced at 5pm on Thursday minutes before this House rose.
“We now know why the secretary of state was so desperate to dodge scrutiny.”
Mr Merriman apologised for the timing, accepting it was “discourteous to honourable members”.