​HS2’s eastern leg ‘not needed’, says West Midlands mayor

The mayor of the West Midlands has said that the eastern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds does not need to be built in full and called on the government to focus on better connecting towns in the Midlands instead. In an admission to the House of Commons cross-party transport committee yesterday, Andy Street said the eastern route of Phase 2b of the high speed line is not needed for “West Midlands business to get what it needs”. The Conservative mayor has previously been a vocal supporter of the entire HS2 project.

His change of position casts further doubt on the route, which was not included in the most recent Queen’s speech despite the government promising to bring forward a bill authorising the western leg from Birmingham to Manchester later this year.

The National Infrastructure Commission also recommended downgrading the eastern leg in December last year, while speculation has mounted that the Treasury is looking at ways to cut spending on rail links following the impact of covid-19 on the public finances. Street said: “Let’s be honest, we all know that there is an incredibly difficult decision that the government has got to make about priorities.

“We have to face the reality we now have and that’s that difficult decisions have got to be made.” Asked by Tory MP for Lincoln Karl McCartney if North-eastern cities would be “disgruntled” by his comments, Street replied: “I’m sure they would but I was asked the questions as to what the priority was for West Midlands business.” The mayor, who was re-elected in May’s local elections with 54% of the vote, said that the “critical” project for the West Midlands was improving east-west links across the whole region.

When responding to questions about what he wanted to see in the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), the government’s long-awaited document outlining future railway upgrades across England, Street did not mention HS2’s eastern leg. Instead, he said that “putting it extremely bluntly”, he wanted to see action on a GBP2bn project called the Midlands Rail Hub, which would involve creating new links between towns across the Midlands. He said he was very confident the government would fund the rail hub, adding: “I’m not being soft about this, [the business case] is substantially better than the business case for the total of HS2.” 

Street also called for “absolute commitment” on the western leg of HS2 to Manchester, saying it would be “cataclysmic” for the West Midlands if the route were cancelled.

HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston, who also attended the committee hearing, which was being held in Birmingham, admitted that no work was being done on planning the eastern leg of Phase 2b. Thurston said the Department for Transport had asked the project to focus on the western route, which he said was now seen as a separate project to the eastern leg. He said that the eastern leg would “play out in the fullness of time” and he expected it to be included in the IRP “in some fashion”.

The government had promised to publish the IRP, first trailed in November, by February this year.

The total cost of both legs of Phase 2b is estimated to be between GBP32bn and GBP46bn.

Added to the GBP45bn cost of Phase 1 and GBP5bn for stations along the network, the total cost of the entire HS2 project is around GBP103bn.