Scrapping the northern leg of HS2 would free up cash to fix pot holes and boost local bus services, Rishi Sunak has suggested.
The Prime Minister insisted “value for money” is his main priority as he again refused to commit to completing the mega rail project in full.
Mr Sunak was repeatedly challenged over speculation he will downgrade the high speed rail scheme, delaying or axing the Birmingham to Manchester leg, in a gruelling round of regional interviews.
The PM also denied betraying the north of England, arguing more people use cars than trains.
He told BBC Radio York: “I think what people will see, I mean particularly around where we are – my home is in Northallerton – we’re investing record amounts in improving infrastructure but also delivering levelling up.
“I mean making sure that our town centres and high streets get the investment that they need.”
“When I speak to people when I’m at home or anywhere else around, what everyone tells me is that you’ve got to make it easier to get around all our northern towns and cities, whether it’s Hull, York, Leeds, Sheffield, all the way over to Liverpool. Connecting all those cities up is really important and we’re doing that.
“But also investing in the local transport that people use every day, making sure that our potholes are filled, making sure that our bus services are running – particularly important in rural areas like mine.”
Mr Sunak’s remarks come as rail chiefs this week warned the taxpayer bill for HS2 could hit an eye-watering £180 billion.
The PM told BBC Radio Manchester that the government “is always making sure that we get value for money out of everything we do”. Mr Sunak also insisted that he is delivering “phase one” of HS2.
“There are spades in the ground right now at the moment making sure that we complete the first part of this line from Birmingham to Central London, and we are absolutely getting on with that, that is important,” he told BBC Radio West Midlands.
Potential plans to scale back or delay the project won’t be announced until November’s Autumn Statement after a major backlash.
However, the issue is set to dominate the Tory Party conference, which kicks off in Manchester this Sunday. The PM said he will travel by car to the city as rail strikes hit the country.
Mr Sunak also warned that doctors’ strikes have held back progress on his pledge to reduce NHS waiting times. It comes after the number of appointments and procedures cancelled due to industrial action in the health service passed the one million milestone.
The latest figures released by NHS England this week followed four days of walkouts, including the first co-ordinated walkout by consultants and junior colleagues in history.
He told BBC Radio Cornwall: “I know people are frustrated. I’m frustrated because, having put this record funding in and worked really hard on it, it is frustrating that the strikes are holding back progress.”
He said: “A million appointments have now been cancelled or rescheduled because of the industrial action. People can get a sense of how much impact that is having.”
Challenged over his overhaul of government green policies Mr Sunak vowed that he is “determined to change the direction of our country”.
Mr Sunak brushed off questions about the Tory Party’s defeat in the local elections, telling BBC Berkshire: “Mid-term, whether it’s by-elections, local elections, always tricky for incumbent governments. I get that and I get people are frustrated about what’s been happening over the past couple of years.”
He said he is “determined to deliver for them” and repeated his five priorities.
“We’re making progress on all, by no means are we there yet and I’m not complacent. But also the other week I took quite a big decision because I’m determined to change the direction of our country. And that means no longer politicians taking the easy way out, but making the right long-term decisions for the future.”