HS2 has got the green light, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that despite rising costs and delays, the project will shift the country centre of gravity away from London and transform connectivity. Is HS2 on the right track or a white elephant in the making?
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given the go-ahead for the HS2 high-speed rail project to link London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, admitting it was a “controversial and difficult decision” amid forecasts that the project’s costs could eventually double to £106bn.
The London-Birmingham leg is expected to open in 2031, with the extensions to Manchester and Leeds to be completed by 2040 – although the project is running behind schedule.
According to HS2 Ltd, the company responsible for building the 345-mile line, the completed HS2 will stop at 25 stations and connect some 30m people. It will cut journey times between London and Birmingham from the current fastest time of 82 minutes to 45 minutes, while also freeing up space on the existing network for more local services and freight.
It puts the expected economic benefits of HS2 at £92bn and said that at the peak of construction, the project will support 30,000 jobs, 70% of which will be outside London.
However, HS2 also has many critics. Lord Berkeley, the former civil engineer who resigned as deputy chair of the official review into HS2 over what he saw as a lack of balance in the final report, said MPs had been “misled” over the costs of the project, which were put at £55.7bn in 2015 but are now expected to be at least £88bn.
He claims HS2 in overdesigned and unnecessary in a country the size of the UK and has called instead for investment in existing rail infrastructure in the North.
The campaign group Stop HS2 says the case for the project “has always been poor, and is simply getting worse”, describing it as a white elephant that should be “cancelled as quickly as possible”.
Meanwhile, environmental groups including Greenpeace UK, the Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, WWF and Friends of the Earth have called for a rethink of HS2, saying the project will damage or destroy 108 ancient woodlands, along with hundreds of other wildlife sites.
HS2 gets the go-ahead
On 11 February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that HS2 will go ahead.
“I cannot say that HS2 Limited has distinguished itself in the handling of local communities. The cost forecasts have exploded, but poor management to date has not detracted from the fundamental value of the project,” he told the Commons.
The PM pledged to “restore discipline” to HS2 through a series of measures including appointing a full-time minister, Andrew Stephenson, to oversee the project.
Industry welcomed the decision. The GMB trade union, which represents HS2 workers, said thousands of skilled jobs in construction and the supply chain depend on the project.
Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry said backing HS2 “sends the right signal around the world that the UK is open for business”. Manufacturers’ body Make UK said industry “will applaud this bold, sensible and pragmatic decision, which will help change the country for the better”.
Douglas Oakervee, the author of the government’s official review of the project and a former chairman of HS2, said costs had got “carried away” but the project is much needed – and there is no shovel-ready alternative for upgrading the existing railways.