Rishi Sunak backs Northern Powerhouse Rail but is lukewarm on HS2

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, London. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, London. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Yorkshire MP Rishi Sunak has thrown his support behind Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) but shied away from fully backing HS2.

Mr Sunak, Tory MP for Richmond, was speaking at a fringe event organised by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) at the Conservative Party conference yesterday.

Speaking with CPS Director Robert Colvile, Mr Sunak said: “I’ve come here from Northallerton, in North Yorkshire, it took me just over two hours on the train trundling along on the Transpennine Express. That journey is about 60 odd miles.

“It takes about the same time to get here from London and that journey is 200 and something odd miles. That is simply not a sustainable way.”

But when Mr Colvile said: “What I think Im hearing here is that you’re going to cancel HS2?”

Mr Sunak laughed and said: “Well what you are hearing is someone who is very, very committed to Northern Powerhouse Rail and that whole agenda. And there are different arguments in different parts of infrastructure but I find a very compelling one, actually, the thesis in George Osbourne’s first speech about the Northern Powerhouse, he talked about a kind of unique collection of big cities we have in the North, Manchester being at the heart of that, and yet they are very poorly connected.”

Northern leaders have called for the delivery of both NPR and HS” to truly unlock the North’s potential. Earlier this month, Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport lead, said: “Both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are vital to address the poor transport links between cities in the North and Midlands which have acted as a significant break on our economies.”

Mr Sunak said yesterday: “The Leeds to Manchester train line is something that we’ve already essentially green lighted and are now going the flesh out exactly how that’s going to work.”

He said: “[On] HS2 we’ve appointed Doug Oakervee to conduct a relatively rapid review of it, it’s due to report at some point in the coming months. And the reason for that is simple, that the cost of this thing has escalated considerably from when it was first approved.

“And that’s partly because a lot of the estimates for the engineering and everything turned out to be wrong. Part of it is because of the changes that were made as the bill progressed in Parliament, but given that we have a kind of go / no go decision at the end of this year to make, with a new Prime Minister, new Government it is right that we’ve reviewed it and given the cost escalation, that work is ongoing, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speculate on the outcome of that.”

But Mr Sunak did recognise the importance of phase 2B of HS2 - which connects the North to the Midlands - in complementing NPR.

He said: “Now that is actually linked to Northern Powerhouse Rail and you need those connections at the top to make some of the Northern Powerhouse Rail projects work. So whatever scepticism you might have about the HS2 if they think it’s HS2 project is not a northern project, bits of it are certainly relevant for this goal of connecting up in northern cities.”

Mr Sunak also briefly touched on plans for devolution to more rural areas.

The Yorkshire Post exclusively revealed today that the Government has laid out an offer to west Yorkshire’s political leaders which could potentially see a metro mayor elected in 2022 with control over adult education budgets, delivery of homes and economic growth.

But Mr Sunak said: “I represent a rural area and there is certainly a feeling that all this devolution is very city focussed.

“Now we do have a couple of devolution areas already that are not as urban, and it’s something that the Secretary of State, Jake Berry, is actively working on. We discussed this - the Prime Minister discussed this - at Cabinet just a couple of weeks ago and we’ve talked about plans that we might have for future devolution, the models that will be, and that’s something which has been talked about for a while so watch this space.

“We need to have an offer that works for everybody, not just the people who happen to live in Manchester or wherever else.”

Mr Sunak touched on his love for Yorkshire in his speech to conference this morning.

He said: "It’s my first time speaking to you and I’m proud to be here representing Richmond, in the magnificent county of North Yorkshire.

"Now as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, it’s my job to watch the pennies.

"And as our fantastic Chancellor likes to say, when you need someone to be thrifty with the nation’s cash…who better to call on than an adopted Yorkshireman!

"Speaking of Yorkshiremen, I’m privileged to be William Hague’s successor. It’s not always easy following in William’s footsteps.

"A local farmer once compared us and told me: 'Lad, you’ve got twice the hair – and half the brains!'

"But conference, you don’t even need half a brain to know that Labour’s spending plans simply don’t add up."