The Financial Times on Monday published a story based on a leaked draft of Lord Oakervee’s review of the high-speed rail service between London and Birmingham, HS2. According to the leaked draft of the report – the publication of which was delayed last year – the conclusion is to press ahead, but Oakervee asks for a six-month pause on the second phase of the project – the link between Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds. Oakervee reportedly recommends using the six months to look at using a combination of conventional train lines and high-speed rail instead, and notes the need for investment in local transport to accompany it.
Since being announced in 2015, the cost of HS2 has ballooned from £56bn to £106bn, with a warning that it could rise another 20 per cent – closer to £130bn, according to the leaked draft. Meanwhile, opposition has steadily grown both among Tory heartlands in the South where the new lines will cut through the countryside, and among northern Tory MPs who need to show their worth by making things happen locally and within the current parliament. The completion date of 2040 for the two phases of HS2 is already seven years later than originally planned.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has criticised HS2 in the past, as has his advisor Dominic Cummings. Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s former transport advisor as Mayor of London, is among those who believe it should be scrapped and the money spent on Northern Powerhouse Rail connecting cities from Liverpool to Newcastle and Hull. On Wednesday, a delegation of MPs opposed to HS2 will lobby the Prime Minister on this matter.
Northern mayors, council leaders, business lobbies and think thanks like IPPR North argue that HS2 is essential for Northern Powerhouse Rail to transform the region’s economy. At the weekend, Metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Andy Street wrote in The Times calling for the government to keep its commitment to HS2, noting it had already been “on ice” for months.
Money-wise, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid’s new rules on borrowing teased out by The Times mean up to £78bn more investment than planned, but with a rising bill for HS2, £39bn for Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a set of commitments to invest in the NHS and schools, HS2 is looking like a political gamble for the government. If it goes ahead, they may find themselves unable to meet these other commitments and unable to deliver the improvements they need to secure their new northern seats won from Labour in December’s election.