It had been a case of ‘will he, won’t he?’ for the best part of half a year. Earlier this month, however, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the controversial High Speed Two (HS2) rail project would go ahead. The decision followed his consideration of an independent review into the feasibility of the project, chaired by Douglas Oakervee and launched in August last year.
Phase one of the project, from London to Birmingham, will go ahead as planned. So too will phase 2a, which will connect Birmingham to Crewe. Phase 2b, from Birmingham to Leeds and Crewe to Manchester, will also proceed, although Johnson said it will be subject to a review to ensure the lines are properly integrated with Northern Powerhouse Rail, a project intended to improve east-west links in the north, from Liverpool to Hull.
The decision brings to an end speculation about whether the project would proceed at all and means that phase one, which is effectively shovel-ready, can now proceed relatively quickly, say commentators. Jonathan Bower, a partner at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, said: "We are no further forward than we were before the Oakervee review was announced but now have certainty at least on delivery of phase one."
Phase one received consent through the HS2 Act 2017, which proceeded through Parliament as a hybrid bill. This granted a form of outline consent for the line, but it meant that local authorities have for the best part of three years been approving detailed applications for new structures in their area. Commentators said that many more of these applications still have to be determined by authorities. "That will last for two or three years, I suspect," said Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure at law firm Pinsent Masons and National infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) board secretary and director.
"The applications will be prepared by HS2 Ltd and submitted to the local planning authorities up and down the route," he said. "They will have to consider these applications for detailed design - for things like bridges and other structures - and all the issues that were left over for detailed consideration and consent through the phase one act."
Craig Jordan, head of economic growth at Lichfield District Council in Staffordshire, said phases one and 2a of the project both cover parts of its council area. According to Jordan, most of the planning work since the 2017 royal assent for phase one back in 2017 has involved consents for preparatory work for the line's construction. This includes permissions for the necessary ecological surveys, large compounds to house workers, and access roads to transport materials for the building work. And now such decisions will resume after the announcement of the Oakervee Review and uncertainty over the route's future halted some of the work in recent months, said Jordan.
The bill for phase 2a was introduced in the last parliament and passed by the House of Commons before reaching the House of Lords where it halted when the general election was called. "The phase 2a bill will be revived in parliament soon," said Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell and chair of NIPA. He expected lawyers and consultants acting for landowners or public authorities during petitioning - the process of lobbying for usually minor changes to the route during the committee phase - to "get some work" as a result.
Owen, meanwhile, expected the phase 2a bill to receive royal assent by the autumn. "When that gets through parliament, the same process as for phase one will apply in terms of local planning authority approvals for detailed matters," he said. Jordan said he is meeting representatives from HS2 "next week" which should firm up the timescale for phase 2a. "I can see it progressing as quickly as possible now the government has said it wants to deliver it."
For phase one, HS2 Ltd drew up a planning memorandum for stations along the route, which Lichfield Council signed up to. "You're given the option to be a qualifying authority and have a degree of control over the design and appearance of new structures," said Jordan. "If not, you've got no say. Most authorities have signed up to allow a degree of input into the process." For phase 2a, HS2 Ltd is developing a similar approach, he said, though the details of it still need to be worked out and agreed between the parties. "There's a lot of learning from phase one," he said.
Then there is the planned review of phase 2b. The bill for this phase was scheduled by the government to be published in July this year, but, due to be the review, that timetable is now unlikely to be met. The government has asked advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to conduct the review and Owen expects it to deliver its findings in about six months, after which the government will need to consider its report. Owen’s best guess is that the phase 2b bill will be published in spring or summer 2021.
In the meantime, planning consultancies on the NIC’s framework agreements may pick up work supporting the review. "It does mean that the northern termini will probably need to be reworked and so the route and land affected previously announced may change," said Walker. Once the bill has been published, it will need to pass through Parliament in the usual manner, during which time planners at the local authorities affected will be involved in petitioning government on the details of the route and so too will consultants representing other affected parties.
Finally, there are two big unknowns, which could create opportunities for planning consultants and lawyers. The government announced that it would remove the delivery of the Euston arrival point in London from HS2 Ltd and hand responsibility over to a separate body yet to be established. It also said it wanted the existing station and the new HS2 terminus to be integrated, despite the latter already receiving consent in the 2017 act. If the stations are integrated, observers said consultants would be needed to achieve that, as well as examine the potential impact on the surrounding area.
Similarly, what was known as the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project is currently thin on detail. Following the NIC review, it will have to be fleshed out, which commentators said would involve consultancy expertise and may mean central government uses a different consent process. "I’m not sure anyone yet knows what NPR is as a project," said Owen. Bower added: "What we may have is an enhanced and more integrated consenting process for phase 2b as its inter-relationship with Northern Powerhouse Rail is explored. This could affect the consenting options but we do not know where that review will land."
- Imminent: Detailed applications from HS2 Ltd will need to be processed by authorities affected by phase one. The NIC begins work on its review of the integration of phase 2b and the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.
- Summer 2020: The NIC is due to report to government on the review outcome.
- Autumn 2020: The phase 2a bill is scheduled to receive royal assent. Detailed applications for this phase will then need to be made by HS2 Ltd and processed by authorities.
- Spring/summer 2021. The bill for phase 2b expected to be published, according to observers.