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Transport secretary to look at HS2 revival plans with 'open mind'

Transport Secretary Mark Harper has said he will look at plans to revive the northern section of HS2 through private investment with "an open mind".

Speaking at a Conservative Home conference in central London, the minister said he and Rishi Sunak had given a "commitment" to the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to examine any proposal he brought forward - after the government decided last year to scrap the leg between Birmingham and Manchester.

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Mr Harper confirmed that Mr Street and Labour's mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, had now commissioned a study into how it could be done through partnerships with business, following reports over the weekend.

And while the transport secretary said he was "somewhat sceptical" about whether the private sector could take on the project without cash from the public purse, he promised to meet the two regional leaders, adding: "I will listen to them."

The prime minister announced his plan to axe the northern leg of HS2 during the Conservative Party conference in 2023, saying the "economic case" for the line had "massively weakened with the changes to business travel post-COVID".

But he was met with fierce opposition from both Mr Street and Mr Burnham, with the latter accusing the government of treating people in the north of England as "second-class citizens".

Rail minister Huw Merriman was also at Tuesday's event, and asked by Sky News if he was as "openminded" to the private investment plan as Mr Harper, he said: "As a Conservative, I always welcome private sector investment in the railway."

However, in what appeared to be a warning to the mayors, he added: "Our plan is clear. They might have something else they want to actually bring forward, we will see what it is, that's their proposal.

"Our plan is we are not taking HS2 further north. Eventually, we will then look to sell that land off, so we'll need to make sure... there is no overlap on what other people [want] to do themselves.

"That is our plan, then we are going to invest in all these projects across the North and the Midlands that I just think ultimately will deliver more regional growth to every part of the country that needs it."

When Mr Sunak made the announcement to scrap HS2 in October, he insisted "every single penny" of the £36bn being saved would be spent on "hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands, and across the country" - launching his flagship Network North project to collate the schemes.

But rather than just public transport plans, Mr Harper today confirmed £8.3bn of those savings would be focused on road improvement schemes.

Asked by Sky News if it was right to divert HS2 cash from rail projects to roads, Mr Harper said: "We are rebalancing a little where we spend the money.

"Sixty percent of the journeys people make are by car, 4% of journeys that are made are by bus and 2% of journeys that are made are by train.

"So I think spending a third of the total transport budget on one train line was disproportionate. So what we are doing is rebalancing that funding."

Pushed again on how it would encourage more people back on to public transport - a goal Mr Harper reiterated today - he told Sky News: "We are still spending a significant amount of the £36bn we have saved from HS2 on rail but we are spending some of it on improving our roads, enabling people to use buses.

"I think that is the right balance - more projects delivering more quickly for more people across the entire country.

"I just think we have rebalanced the transport spending better - still supporting public transport, still encouraging active travel, but also recognising most people use roads and we should put a significant investment into that as well."

Rail minister Mr Merriman backed the transport secretary - despite earlier telling the conference rail was the "green, clean way to get around" and younger people were not taking up driving licences in the same numbers "because they see the train as their mode of transport".

He told Sky News: "We need our roads. And the fact is, if I cycle on the roads at the moment - or even driving the couple of miles to my station - then I am afraid to say the potholes are so vast.

"It is a series of 's' bends and it is really dangerous because people are just avoiding them.

"I absolutely understand the need to take some of that money and put it across [roads]. But the important thing is it is all being spent on transport and everything should feed into each other as a system."