When the Olympics were awarded to London, I was extremely sceptical. They would prove to be a colossal embarrassment, a massive waste of public money. They would over-run their budget and might not even be ready in time. The capital would grind to a halt amid security checks. Those in the rest of the country would lose out and the regeneration of Stratford would be a fairy tale.
I was wrong on every count. At a particular point, though, I did revise my view – suspending hostilities on the basis the Games were going to happen anyway and we ought to make a decent fist of them.
That’s where I am with HS2. During my lifetime, rail links between London and the North have improved immeasurably. I believe the £50bn cost could be better spent on upgrading cross-country services and the motorways and trunk roads. However, it now appears that such arguments are lost: the high-speed service is going to get built, and therefore, it’s imperative the railway is as good as it can be.
With these thoughts in mind, I am seeing Sir David Higgins, HS2’s chairman. There is another link with London 2012: Higgins was chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority.
Tall, angular, Higgins appears more relaxed than when we last met, in the run-up to the Olympics. It helps as well that he’s Australian, so dispensing with formality comes naturally.
How do the two compare? “This doesn’t have a fixed deadline.” He laughs. “This is more political, more controversial. It’s going to have more impact, and it’s going to cost five times as much.”
He nods at me, smiling. “Journalists used to write that nobody would go to Stratford. I know exactly when the view altered, it was when the stanchions went up for the stadium. The challenge we have here at HS2 is to achieve that change.” Most people will swing behind HS2, he feels, “once they start to see engineering beginning, spades going into the ground – that’s the enabling point”.
Is he happy with the progress? He shakes his head. “I’m never happy, I’ve got to keep the momentum going, I’ve got to see progress.”
A key stage was reached when the Commons voted to send the necessary legislation to a second reading, ensuring the project will now be pored over in select committee. The preceding debate, volunteers Higgins, was when the enormity of the task really hit him. “I realised it wasn’t just about engineering, it was about all the lives it will affect, particularly those along the route. The chamber is very small, very personal, and the MPs packed a lot of speeches in. It was very sobering, when the majority came out. It made me realise that in everything we do, we must be accountable – it was very humbling.”
This notion that HS2 is much more than a track for fast trains is stressed repeatedly by Higgins. There will be new stations that will act as hubs for other services, by rail and road. Those stations will bring their own benefits, creating communities and reshaping local economies. For instance, Old Oak Common, in west London, is earmarked as a major interchange, joining north and west London lines, Crossrail and the West Coast main line. “It could be the next Stratford.” He predicts it will lead to the creation of 20,000 new homes, plus numerous businesses.
We need to think of the project as a whole, he insists, not just Stage One but Stage Two, which will take in better connections and cross-country services across the North. He’d like to bring forward this second phase, so the benefits of HS2 can be felt north of Birmingham sooner. At present, trains will begin running from London to Birmingham in 2026 but are not due to head further north until 2033.
A landmark will be reached this week, when the British design industry’s great and good assemble in London to discuss the HS2 brief. Again, the steer will be looking at how the project will knit together with everything around it. “HS2 is an opportunity to focus on design excellence,” says Higgins. “It’s not just about the architecture of stations, but the land in between. We must think about everything we do in terms of design and quality, because we will be leaving it for others to inherit.”
That sense of permanence, says Higgins, was instilled in him early on in his career. He carried it through to the building of the Olympic Park in Sydney for the 2000 Games, and then the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, which he oversaw before moving to London 2012.
With HS2, Higgins maintains he will ensure: “We hire the most creative, ambitious people. Not the most expensive, but people who want to change the world. We’re here to change lives.”
Yes, but is he winning hearts and minds? “Take Euston [the redevelopment of the Euston Station site]. I went to see the leader of Camden Council, to demonstrate how it will benefit the community. She said ‘we’ll get nothing out of it except a new railway station and a lot of disruption to our lives’. I said ‘we will do Euston properly’ and showed her how it will be different, how we will create a new community.”
Is it true that at the Olympic Park, he used to turn up at 7am every day, before anyone else, and just wander round, imagining how the place would look? It was worse than that, he says. On one occasion he was baffled by some grass mounds he came across. “I could not work out what they were, so I flew up in a police helicopter and was hanging off it, taking pictures with a camera. When I studied the photos I realised they were spoil heaps from when the City was rebuilt after the Blitz.”
He will have retired before the line is finished. Nevertheless, the length of the project must be daunting. “That’s why we need to make the case for it. It’s about levelling things up between North and South, about spreading the wealth that derives from London.”
He adds: “No FTSE 100 company is based in Manchester, our biggest city after Birmingham, and only two are based in Birmingham. All the banks are in London, all the top accountancy firms. Everyone is dragged to London. But property prices and a shortage of social housing will make London incompatible. Can we allow that to happen? Of course we can’t, but what we can do is enable people to live one hour away.
“Look at the Olympics. Two major companies have moved their offices to Stratford. Until the Olympics, there was no class A office space east of Canary Wharf.”
That’s what he hopes for HS2, that it’s a social engineering triumph as well as a civil engineering one. As for us, he’d like us to stop carping and start believing.
David Higgins: The CV
Born: 1954 in Brisbane, Australia
Educated: Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview; University of Sydney (civil engineering)
Career: joined Lend Lease in 1985; appointed chief executive in 1995, in charge of building the Olympic Park at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and Bluewater shopping centre in Kent; later became chief of London 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority; chief executive of Network Rail; executive chairman of High Speed 2.
Salary: £591,000 as full-time chairman of HS2
Family: married, with two children