HS2: full speed ahead or a cancelled service?
As the potential cost of the HS2 project threatens to spiral to an eye-watering £106bn, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has requested more data about the scheme as he prepares to announce a decision about its future.
11 years after the HS2 route was first proposed by the Labour government in 2009, the estimated cost has already ballooned to £56bn. However, a leaked official review has now confirmed what independent economists have been claiming for some time: that the final cost of the project could be nearly double that sum.
A source of controversy
HS2 – the single most expensive project attempted by a government in British peacetime – has long been a source of controversy for several reasons. Environmentalists have cited the potential damage to wildlife and biodiversity, while politicians and business leaders from around the UK have criticised the London-centric nature of the proposals, despite phases 2 and 3 of the project extending HS2 beyond the initial London to Birmingham route.
The review into the costs and viability of HS2, which was authored by respected civil engineer Doug Oakervee and which was leaked to the Financial Times, highlighted the ‘considerable risk’ that the final cost of the project could spiral to £106bn. The review also made some recommendations that could affect the second phase of the scheme, suggesting that construction work on the route from the West Midlands to Manchester and Leeds be postponed for a six-month period, allowing time to give consideration to alternative rail options, such as mixing high-speed and standard rail.
The suggestion of a temporary pause in the development of the northern sections of HS2 caused consternation in northern cities, with business and construction industry leaders claiming that abandoning the project would devastate employment and plans to redevelop the North’s infrastructure in future.
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, described any delay or change to phase 2 of HS2 as ‘not…acceptable’, saying, ‘To me that would be the same old story. London to Birmingham, money is no object, and then all the penny pinching is done in the North of England.’
He also highlighted that future proposals for a Northern Powerhouse rail network – or HS3 – connecting Liverpool with Manchester and Leeds, depended on HS2 being completed in line with the existing plans.
To be or not to be…? - the HS2 question
Within weeks, it should become clear whether the future HS2 news will be dominated by economic concerns over its continuation or highly charged disagreements about its cancellation. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been warned by construction bosses against cancelling the project because of the ‘irreparable damage’ it would cause to the industry and to HS2 jobs, is said to be in favour of decentralising economic power from London but is also keen to avoid the project’s costs from spiraling out of control.
Despite delegations of MPs and business leaders offering their advice to Government on both sides of the HS2 argument, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has stated that any decision affecting the project needs to be ‘fact-based’.
Such decision is expected to be announced by the Government very shortly.