The Tory mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen, has launched a scathing attack on HS2 in stark contrast to his fellow mayors – both Tory and Labour – who have so far been united in criticising reports that Rishi Sunak will cut the infrastructure project.
Mr Houchen slammed HS2 as a “white elephant”, saying it “completely ignores the North East”.
He added that the cost – which could be as high as £180 billion if fully constructed – is “ridiculous”.
The popular Red Wall figure, closely associated with Boris Johnson’s mission of levelling up, said: “If we reallocated the money, we could deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail, in full, and give every northern leader enough to transform local transport in their areas and still save the taxpayer £80 billion”.
His attack on the behemoth rail project was supported by local Teesside MP Sir Simon Clarke.
Mr Houchen’s attack on HS2 sets him out as a lone local leader voice, in stark contrast to Labour’s mayors.
Five of them – Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Steve Rotheram – came out yesterday to call on HS2 to be spared from further cuts.
Their joint declaration said that curtailing the project would be a “decision of epic proportions for our party of the world”.
They also criticised the government as “deeply disrespectful to our residents and businesses” that they have not been offered any opportunity to feed in their views into the decision-making process.
“We are completely in the dark and that simply isn’t right given how profoundly important this is for our part of the country.”
They did, however, offer an olive branch to the Prime Minister and hint at a possible compromise.
“If you are adamant on making changes to the scheme, we could be open to a discussion about prioritising the Northern section of the line, between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, so that it enables [Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR)] to be built first.
“This would be conditional on two things: NPR being built in full, with an underground station at Manchester Piccadilly and a new line via Bradford; and a clear commitment that HS2 to Manchester is not being scrapped but re-phased and the protections left in place.”
Mr Houchen also set himself apart from his fellow Tory Metro Mayor Andy Street in the West Midlands.
Mr Street has publicly warned that a scaled-back HS2 will jeopardise investment in the area.
“A lot of people have made big investment decisions – literally hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds – on the promise of this [HS2] coming.
“I think it’s a very poor signal to say to businesses, ‘We’ve changed our mind and what you assumed in your investment decision is no longer right’.”
This morning Mr Sunak refused to comment on the reports about HS2 cuts, while being grilled by local BBC radio stations.
The Prime Minister did, however, imply that scrapping the Manchester-Birmingham leg of the railway could free up investment for other east-west rail projects, and to improve roads and potholes.