HS2 is a “national disgrace” and should have been cancelled years ago, former Conservative leader Lord Hague has said.
He said the controversial high speed rail link is “out of control” amid spiralling costs that could leave taxpayers with a colossal £180billion bill.
Lord Hague’s stark intervention comes as his close-ally Rishi Sunak looks set to slash the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the project although a final decision will be delayed after a furious backlash.
He had been expected to declare this week that the Manchester leg of the huge scheme was being axed or postponed amid alarm at spiralling costs.
Allies of the PM said that those running the scheme have been acting like “kids with the golden credit card”, insisting he is not willing to accept a “ballooning” bill.
Lord Hague told Times Radio: “It should have been cancelled a few years ago when it was clear that the whole thing was out of control, that the costs are out of control, they wouldn’t be able to ever go to Leeds. I would have cancelled it then. Now you’ve got this classic problem.
“If you’re halfway though something and it’s been terribly badly managed – really a national disgrace as a project – do you say okay, I’m stopping this, or do you say actually now we’re halfway through we have to at least complete and make sense of the parts that we can still do.”
He added: “I hope that whatever is decided Rishi Sunak will say we’re managing things totally differently in the future in this country, because we’re not good at managing infrastructure.”
Conservative MP Esther McVey warned that HS2 is “sucking the life” out of local transport in the north of England.
But Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Lord Heseltine are among the big Tory beasts who have warned against abandoning the long-standing plans.
They said scrapping the Manchester route would be a “gross act of vandalism” which would mean “abandoning” the North and Midlands. The government appears to have backed off an announcement before the Tory party conference due to take place in Manchester from this weekend.
And the decision seems unlikely to be confirmed before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers his Autumn Statement in November. Lord Berkley, a former deputy chair of the government’s HS2 review, said he expects the overall cost to soar dramatically unless it is curtailed.
He told TalkTV: “We reckon it costs about £180billion now which is stupid. The other problem is that it’s the wrong project for today. When everyone in the North is complaining bitterly that it won’t go to Manchester – what they should be complaining about is that it doesn’t actually connect the cities of the North.”
“What we need is better connectivity across the North – linking up our great northern cities. That is what will power the northern economy. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that enough is enough with HS2.
“Just because some money has been wasted on the project, is not an argument for wasting even more. Land already purchased can be resold or used for much needed housing. The money saved can be used to give the north the infrastructure we really need – both transport and broadband.”
The first estimate in 2010 of the proposed high speed rail link between London and the North was £30billion, with this raising to up to £36billion in the following year’s prices.
Policing Minister Chris Philp said the PM and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are reviewing the project. He told Sky News: “It’s roughly tripled, I think, since it was first conceived.
“No decisions have been taken about the remaining stages of HS2 but I do know the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are looking at how the cost can be controlled.”
Mr Sunak did nothing to quell fears on Monday that he is going to further scale back the project, which may now terminate in a west London suburb rather than in Euston, near the centre.
Another former chancellor, Lord Hammond has said the project risked becoming a white elephant if it was not finished, while former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that scaling it back would be “completely wrong”.
In October, the Government’s assessment of the cost for the Manchester leg was up to £71billion. Ministers said in June that £22.5billion had been spent so far on the first leg to Birmingham, while around £2.3billion had been spent on subsequent legs, with expenditure going towards labour as well as land.
All those figures were based on 2019 prices, so will have soared thanks to inflation alone, as the costs of materials and wages rose.