Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that the controversial HS2 high-speed rail link will be built after all, ending months of speculation.
The first phase of the route will travel between London and Birmingham, with a second phase extending the link to Manchester and Leeds.
Announcing the decision at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson admitted that taking the decision had been problematic. In a sharply critical summary of the HS2 company‘s hitherto management of the scheme, he added that he was going to appoint a full-time minister to oversee the project.
Citing failings such as the poor handling of local communities, the rapid escalation of expected costs and the overrun of the timetable, the PM nonetheless expressed his belief in the project and said that a series of measures would be taken to “restore discipline to the programme”.
The likely benefits
Supporters of HS2 say it will improve journey times, increase capacity and reduce overcrowding, create skilled jobs and rebalance the UK’s economy in favour of the northern regions.
Once in operation, journeys will be shorter. London to Birmingham travel times will be reduced from 81 to 52 minutes, according to the Department for Transport. And during construction, the development is expected to create thousands of jobs and stimulate economic growth.
The first phase of HS2, due to open at the end of 2026, may not be operational until the end of the decade, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told MPs in September last year. And the second phase to Manchester and Leeds, due to open in 2032-33, has now been pushed back to 2035-40.
Nevertheless, Mr Johnson told MPs that if work started immediately, he hoped trains “could be running by the end of the decade”.
The soaring cost of the project has provoked a backlash. Set at just under £56bn in the 2015 Budget, one independent forecast now estimates the cost to be as high as £106bn.
The PM said that the Government, in line with the five-month review he ordered last August, would examine the current costs to pinpoint where savings could be made in the first phase without having to resort to a total redesign.
MPs opposed to HS2
Although HS2 was signed off by MPs in 2017, the Tories failed to commit fully to the project in their manifesto at the last election and there has been opposition to it from a range of sources; outright opposition on grounds of cost or delivery, to local concerns from MPs whose constituencies lie on or near the route.
Once completed, the rail link will run through 70 or so constituencies, most of which are currently held by Conservative MPs.
Of the MPs who oppose HS2, many are concerned about environmental damage, villages being split in two, house owners being forced to sell up and the potential effect on property prices of houses located in close proximity to the rail link.
Dame Cheryl Gillan is convinced it will not deliver “value for money” and is concerned that the building work will cause the destruction of ancient woodlands in her Buckinghamshire constituency of Chesham and Amersham.
Sir Graham Brady has called for an urgent review of a section of the line to Manchester which will cut through a number of villages which he said would cost more than £1bn and prove “entirely unnecessary”.
Another long-term critic, Andrew Bridgen, was the only Conservative MP in the Commons debate to voice outright opposition, saying HS2 would “adversely affect” his constituents in North West Leicestershire, and is unloved, unwanted and has been grossly mismanaged”.
MPs in favour of HS2
By contrast, those in favour of HS2 cite faster journey times, job creation and economic growth.
Kieran Mullan believes businesses in his Crewe and Nantwich constituency will benefit directly from HS2 services calling at Crewe.
Lilian Greenwood, MP for Nottingham South, said the go-ahead for the rail link was “welcome news”, but expressed concern that the section of the route from the West Midlands to Leeds via the East Midlands could be “delayed further or downgraded to cut costs”, and asked for a guarantee that it will be rubber-stamped by Parliament within the next five years.
Labour’s Mike Kane, MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, welcomed the news, saying that faster journey times to the North of England would present “a plethora of opportunities for the disadvantaged of the south-east and the great city of Manchester”.
The future of HS2 is not in doubt, given the Government’s 80-strong majority, but is set to remain a controversial and divisive development inside and outside Parliament.