It's "absolutely right" to reconsider the funding for HS2, a minister said on Sunday amid speculations that the government is planning to shelve the northern part of the high-speed rail project.
Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary who recently took over the defence portfolio, said it would be "crazy" to not revisit the balance book after the "enormous" spending on COVID-19 responses and Ukraine.
"It is the case that all of these big decisions where budgets are—in particular in the case of HS2—inexorably going higher and higher and higher," the defence secretary told Sky News’s "Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips" programe, adding that it's "absolutely right" that the government re-examine whether the project can be "delivered to a pace and a timetable that actually works for the taxpayer" or it's "just an open-ended cheque."
He said a decision would be taken “in due course,” adding, "We don’t think that any amount of money—no matter how big the budget gets, you should just carry on ploughing it in—there has to be a point at which you say ‘hold on a minute, let’s just take a break here.'”
Speaking to BBC's "Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg" programme, Mr. Shapps said the government has to prioritise after the huge spending in recent years.
"I think the sequencing of what happens next [with HS2] is a perfectly legitimate question when we've been hit by the enormous costs of coronavirus, probably £400 billion, probably another £100 billion from the war in Ukraine. And people rightly will say, 'Well, there's a balance of money that needs to be spent on health, education, defence, and many other things," he said.
With "all of the consequences, all of the costs, and all of the inflation" after COVID-19 and Ukraine, "any government that doesn't go back and then look at it is crazy," he added.
The project, which was intended to connect London, the Midlands, and the north of England, with construction split into three phases, was set up in 2009 and backed by successive Conservative governments since 2010.
In 2013, HS2 was estimated to cost £37.5 billion in 2009 prices but the sums have continued to spiral.
A budget of £55.7 billion for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015 but some reports suggest costs have now surpassed £100 billion, having been driven up by recent inflation rises.
Mr. Shapps's remarks came amid speculation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is thinking about axing plans for the HS2 high-speed rail link to run from Birmingham to Manchester amid soaring costs.
Critics of such a move include former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, some business leaders, and Labour mayors of Greater Manchester and London, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan.
But Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has suggested the scheme is “out of control.”
Mr. Burnham accused the government of treating people in the north as "second-class citizens," telling Sir Trevor Phillips on Sunday that they are "always forced to choose" between what they can have while "London never has to choose between a north-south line and an east-west line and good public transport within the city."
"This was the Parliament that said they would level us up. If they leave a situation where the southern half of the country is connected by modern high-speed lines, and the north of England is left with Victorian infrastructure, that is a recipe for the north-south divide to become a north-south chasm over the rest of this century," he said.
“And that is why people here are fed up with false promises and also watching now what seems to be the desperate acts of a dying Government. This is really not right and not fair to people here who were given so many promises,” he said.