The government would be “crazy” not to reconsider the costs of the HS2 rail project, Grant Shapps has told the BBC.
Shapps said Rishi Sunak was prepared to take “difficult long-term decisions” amid reports the Prime Minister is set to axe the northern leg of HS2.
The defence secretary told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme external factors such as inflation and the Covid-19 pandemic had changed the picture for HS2.
“Any government that doesn’t go back and look at [such costs] is crazy,” he said.
“We have seen the costs accelerate a lot. Of course, inflation has been part of that… but I have to say that it would be irresponsible to simply spend the money, carry on as if nothing had changed, if there has been a change in that fiscal picture.”
He also signalled that it was likely the project could be reconsidered in an appearance on Sky News’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips.
The former transport secretary said: “In that time, coronavirus happened. People stopped travelling entirely for a while and didn’t go back to the normal patterns of travel.
“Any government that doesn’t then look at their plans and resequence them is, I’m afraid, acting outside of the reality of the situation.”
He added that a decision would be taken “in due course”, but added: “What I can say is we take those long-term decisions seriously, but we don’t think that any amount of money – no matter how big the budget gets, you should just carry on ploughing it in – there has to be a point at which you say ‘hold on a minute, let’s just take a break here’.”
Widespread speculation emerged over the weekend that Sunak is poised to axe the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the HS2 scheme, in face of opposition from businesses.
John Dickie, chief executive of Business London, has suggested policy shifts were “no way to run Britain’s long-term infrastructure projects”.
He has said: “The constant chopping, changing, the uncertainty over the scope and the timing of this project is a big reason why its costs have risen over the past decade or so.”
The Sunday Telegraph reported the potential cost of the high-speed rail scheme – which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said is “out of control” – had increased by £8bn.
It’s been suggested the decision could be taken before the Tories host their annual party conference in Manchester from 1 October.
Labour shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones, told the BBC: “The Labour Party would love to see HS2 built, including the connection to Leeds, we’ve long said that.
“You’ll recognise the reason we’re talking about this is because of leaks from the government, we don’t have any decision yet from Tory ministers.
“We are not going to make decisions about national infrastructure projects that involve tens of billions of pounds without all of the information being available… we need to see the costs.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham criticised the reports, warning people in the north of England are treated like “second-class citizens” over HS2.
“An east-west line is really important for the north of England, as well as north-south,” he said. “Why is it always that people here are forced to choose?
“London never has to choose between a north-south line and an east-west line and good public transport within the city… why are we always treated as second-class citizens when it comes to transport?”
Burnham added: “This was the Parliament that said they would level us up.
“If they leave a situation where the southern half of the country is connected by modern high-speed lines, and the north of England is left with Victorian infrastructure, that is a recipe for the north-south divide to become a north-south chasm over the rest of this century.
“This is really not right and not fair to people here who were given so many promises.”