David Cameron has called for politicians from all parties to get behind the planned High Speed 2 (HS2) rail link, and announced that new boss Sir David Higgins had been tasked with finding ways to cut its estimated £50 billion budget.
The Prime Minister insisted that the programme would be made “affordable for our country”, and hit out at those in opposition who, he said, are “putting our country’s future at risk”.
Mr Cameron used his address to the annual conference of the employers’ federation, the CBI, to appeal for ‘national unity’ to get the project started and completed on time, in the spirit of the 2012 Olympics.
HS2 will need cross-party approval if it is to stand a chance of being built, but shadow chancellor Ed Balls threw Labour's support into doubt by raising concerns about the spiralling costs earlier this year, insisting he would not sign a “blank cheque”.
The Conservative leader described concerns that more efforts could be made to cut costs as “nonsense”, saying: “I think with Sir David Higgins in charge, with the budget we have and the contingency we have, this is a good investment for Britain.
“People who are against it, in my view, are putting our country's future at risk, they are putting the future of the North of England at risk. We need to have a concerted consensus across business, across politics, that we get behind these large infrastructure projects.”
And he added: “I think it is absolutely right to make this investment. It is going to unite our country, it will help drive economic growth, it will make sure our economy shares growth between the North and South, it will link eight of our 10 biggest cities.”
He rejected arguments that the cost of HS2 will divert investment away from other necessary work on the UK's transport network, pointing out that the planned spending on the project in the period 2015-20 totals £16 billion - less than a quarter of the £73 billion overall bill for improvements to roads and railways.
Former chief executive of the London Olympic Delivery Authority Sir David, who takes over as HS2 chairman next year, believes the scheme can come in at “substantially” less than current estimates by trimming the £14 billion earmarked for contingency costs.
And Mr Cameron told the CBI: “I want to make sure we get every penny of value for money from this HS2 investment. I think it is fantastic that Sir David Higgins - the man who built the Olympics on time and on budget - is going to be running HS2.
“One of the first things he is going to do is make absolutely sure we drive every extra bit of cost out of this that we can, so it comes in under the budget that's been set.
“There is already a contingency of £14 billion there. I know he will do a good job and make it affordable for our country.”
Additional reporting by PAReuse content