Is this the end of the line for HS2, by Angus Walker

In furtherance of a pledge made by Boris Johnson during his leadership campaign, the government has launched a review of HS2. Does that mean it is the beginning of the end of the project?

First, the details. The review is to be chaired by Doug Oakervee, with Lord Berkeley as deputy chair, together with a panel consisting of John Cridland, Michèle Dix, Stephen Glaister, Patrick Harley, Peter Hendy, Andrew Sentence, Andy Street and Tony Travers, which curiously is described as having no right of veto over the findings. It is to report in ‘the autumn’ (which seems to mean any time before the winter solstice), which is not long, given the length of its terms of reference, which has nine main issue to look at and 16 sub-issues. By my calculations the team of ten contains three outright critics, four outright supporters and three who probably support in principle but have concerns about cost, but I’m not saying who is who!

The timing of the review is interesting, as preliminary works have already commenced. Buildings have been demolished at both ends of the first phase, around Euston station in London and Curzon Street in Birmingham. I’m not sure whether the bulldozers have been stilled while the review is going on. Public notices seeking the acquisition of land were published in the London Gazette on the same day that the review was announced. The authorisation for the section from Birmingham to Crewe is currently still being considered by Parliament, with the second reading of the relevant Bill in the Lords on 4 September – will that still plough on?

I have heard conflicting views about what the outcome of the review might be. I would have thought it was unlikely that HS2 would be cancelled altogether, but it will probably be put in a much tighter financial straitjacket. The delays and cost overruns of Crossrail – now the Elizabeth Line – are probably not helpful to HS2.

Some say that parts of it may get cancelled – either just the northern end (from Leeds and Manchester) might get built, or only the London to Birmingham section. The benefits of increasing accessibility and reducing journey times are greater as one goes north, but the benefits of increasing capacity are greatest at the London end so there are reasons for both.

The northern option is said to be favoured by the prime minister as a rebalancing of infrastructure projects between south and north. The thing is, though, the northern end is way behind the southern end in terms of authorisation. The Bill for the southern end was lodged in Parliament on 25 November 2013 and received royal assent on 23 February 2017, three years and three months later. The Bill for the northern end hasn’t been lodged in Parliament yet (it is expected early next year), and the route is longer. Thus even with a fair wind it won’t get consent until mid-2023 while the southern section could be half-built by then. We will no doubt know more soon enough.

Angus Walker is a partner at BDB Pitmans

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