Labour could delay or scale back plans for a new high speed rail network - and build a new line linking the North East and North West first, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has revealed.

He said Labour would build a new line to link the east and west of England, possibly including connections between Birmingham, in the West Midlands, and Nottingham, in the East Midlands.

And Labour would ask “big questions” about whether existing plans for “phase two” of the high speed line known as HS2, which would run from Birmingham to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds, made any sense.

Mr Balls said: “Getting on and doing east-west now is the priority.”

The comments, in an interview with regional newspapers at Westminster, are a major policy announcement in the run-up to the general election on May 7.

A computer-generated image of plans for the entrance to Birmingham Curzon Street HS2 Station, from the Birmingham Curzon HS2 Masterplan

Labour had previously backed proposals for the high speed rail line known as HS2, which could cost more than £50 billion, even though Mr Balls was known to have doubts about it.

He was speaking after a cross-party House of Lords inquiry warned that the Government had failed to “make a convincing case” for the high speed rail line known as HS2, and concluded that improving east-west rail links might do more good for the economy.

Labour will press ahead with plans to build a new line between London and Birmingham, with work due to begin in 2017, although Mr Balls said he would want to review costs to ensure taxpayers were getting value for money.

But it will reconsider the second phase of the project, which extends the line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester and was due to begin construction in the mid 2020s.

Instead, Mr Balls said Labour would bring bring forward plans similar to the so-called HS3, a proposed new line linking the North East and North West.

The Shadow Chancellor said he would ask Sir David Higgins, Executive Chairman of HS2 Ltd, to examine whether the proposed second phase of the line offered the “best connectivity and best jobs and investment opportunities for Liverpool and Hull and Newcastle as well.”

He said: “I will want to be discussing how we can improve east-west links with David Higgins from day one and I think that is something we get on with quickly while we ask big questions about the second phase of HS2.”

He added: “The idea that we wait to do east-west until after we have done the second phase of north-south is topsy turvy.

“It has no economic or business logic at all.”

Chancellor George Osborne has also said he supports HS3 but there are no firm plans to build it and, as things stand, it is unlikely construction could begin until after HS2 is completed in 2033, partly because there are not enough engineers to build two major rail projects at once.

Mr Balls said: “I don’t understand this proposal for HS3. Why would you decide to spend 20 years improving north-south links before, finally, in the third phase, coming to east-west?

“I think George Osborne has got this wrong.

“And our view is that it shouldn’t be HS3 - it should be done before the second phase of HS2.

“I think getting on and doing east-west now is the priority.”

The Shadow Chancellor said services would connect the north east and north west, but also suggested a line could also link Birmingham and Nottingham.

“There is actually a big economic need to link east-west, and I’m thinking about Nottingham, Birmingham, Newcastle as being part of that east-west network as well.

An artist's impression of HS2
An artist's impression of HS2

“The idea that improving links between Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Newcastle, that that should wait until after we have done HS2, I don’t think makes sense.”

Last year business leaders and councils in the East Midlands and West Midlands, which have formed a body called Midlands Connect, publishes a report highlighting the economic benefits which would come from improvng rail links between the two regions.

And the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee urged MPs to block legislation allowing construction of HS2 until the Government can prove it has seriously considered other options – including improving connections between cities in the north of England first.

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