HS2 to be reviewed
In what is perhaps the least surprising news of the year, the future of HS2, England’s new high speed rail line linking London to the North, appears to be in doubt. The government has launched an independent review into “whether and how” HS2 should proceed.
Anyone who has been following the progress of HS2 in recent years will be familiar with the projected cost overruns, staffing problems and other issues that we have previously highlighted. However, government support has been solid throughout – until now.
The report will consider the project’s affordability, scope, deliverability and whether it meets the specified goals. Findings will be delivered this Autumn, and it is considered likely by industry figures that the plans will be modified rather than scrapped entirely.
Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, said: “The prime minister has been clear that transport infrastructure has the potential to drive economic growth, redistribute opportunity and support towns and cities across the UK, but that investments must be subject to continuous assessment of their costs and benefits.”
The overall cost is expected to rise as high as £85bn – a £30bn increase over initial estimates. That is a significant cost, and it is only right that it is reviewed. However, David Begg, a transport economist, believes that “if you wanted to stop this project you wouldn’t have chosen that panel of experts”. If he is right, the report is likely to consider where cost savings can be made and suggest amendments to the plan accordingly, rather than scrap the line entirely.
The area of most concern is what happens to the Northern branch of the HS2 line. The London to Birmingham section is already in construction and likely to be completed, but the lack of care from successive governments towards Northern public transport has led many to believe that the line will never reach Manchester or Leeds.
Henri Murrison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, emphasised its importance to the North, saying: “HS2 is a vital project to help rebalance the economy and make us more productive.”
But it is clear that government does not take Northern transport concerns particularly seriously, as shown by the latest research from think tank IPPR North. Whereas investment in London transport is as high as £3,636 per person, the North receives a far lower £1,247 - £2,389 less on average per head.
The practical effect of this disparity is that London has received funding for two separate Crossrail lines during the same period that the government has refused to commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail – a line linking east to west – and is now openly questioning its commitment to deliver HS2 to the North.
Without a sea-change in government attitudes it is hard to imagine this situation changing, and the Northern Powerhouse project will continue to be undermined by lack of funding. Getting transport right across the North is vital to future prosperity, and the review of HS2 will demonstrate exactly where the government’s true priorities lie.