HS2: Boris Johnson faces backbench rebellion as he gives green light to controversial rail project

Extensions to Manchester and Leeds under review as part of a ‘master plan for high-speed north’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 11 February 2020 13:40 GMT
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Boris Johnson gives 'green signal' to HS2 project

Boris Johnson has defied bitter opposition from backbench Tory MPs by giving the green light to the HS2 rail line between London, Birmingham and Crewe.

But the prime minister indicated that phase 2b of the multibillion-pound project, extending the lines to Manchester and Leeds, is now under review as part of an integrated masterplan for “High Speed North” also including the Northern Powerhouse Rail project connecting northern cities east to west as well as smaller regional transport links. Simply pressing ahead with the Y-shaped phase 2b would be “intolerable”, as it would delay more comprehensive development of northern rail networks by 20 years, he said.

Mr Johnson announced a shake-up to the management of HS2 Ltd and said he will appoint a minister to work full-time on the project and commission a plan for design and integration of all rail investments in the north of England.

The announcement was welcomed by the CBI, whose chief UK policy director Matthew Fell described it as “exactly the sort of bold, decisive action required to inject confidence in the economy”.

But environmentalists Friends of the Earth said HS2 was a “costly and damaging mistake which will threaten wildlife, destroy ancient woodlands and do nothing to reduce climate-wrecking pollution”.

And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the delays to HS2 – first announced under Gordon Brown’s Labour administration in 2009 – were due to “gross Conservative incompetence”. Mr Corbyn said that the high-speed line must be extended to the cities of the north and eventually to Scotland and said he was concerned that today’s announcement might mean links to Manchester and Leeds being downgraded.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said the cabinet had given “the green signal” to the phases 1 and 2a of HS2 on Tuesday morning, declaring that this part of the project can be delivered on a budget of £35-45bn and see its first services running by the end of this decade.

Mr Johnson told MPs: “Our generation faces a historic choice. We can try to get by with the existing routes from north to south, we can consign the next generation to overcrowding and standing up in the carriages, or we can have the guts to take a decision, no matter how difficult or controversial, that will deliver prosperity to every part of the country.”

Douglas Oakervee’s review, which said the total cost of the project could reach £106bn, left “no doubt of the clinching case for high-speed rail”, said Mr Johnson.

He told MPs it would deliver “extraordinarily fast” journey times, a “vast” increase in capacity and hundreds of thousands of additional seats. Passengers arriving at Birmingham International Airport would be able to reach central London in 38 minutes.

Mr Johnson told the Commons: “Today, the cabinet has given high-speed rail the green signal. We are going to get this done. And to ensure that we do so without further blowo​uts on either cost or schedule, we are today taking decisive action to restore discipline to the programme.

“I will be appointing a minister, whose full-time job will be to oversee the project. A new ministerial oversight group will be tasked with taking strategic decisions about it. There will be changes to the way HS2 is managed. We will ... be interrogating the current costs to identify where savings can be made in phase 1 without the costs and delays that would be associated with a detailed redesign.

“And so that the company can focus solely on getting phases 1 and 2a built on something approaching time and budget, I will be creating new delivery arrangements for both the grossly behind-schedule Euston Terminus and phase 2b of the wider project.

“But before those designs are finalised and legislation introduced, we will also present an integrated plan for rail in the north, informed by an assessment from the National Infrastructure Commission. It will ... look at how we can best design and integrate rail investments across the north, including Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester.”

Work on phase 1 between London and Birmingham will begin in April, while the government will revive legislation to deliver phase 2a between Birmingham and Crewe as soon as possible, said Downing Street.

No 10 said the first services were expected to run between Old Oak Common in west London and Birmingham between 2029 and 2031, with the line extended to Euston in central London by 2031-36 and northwards to Manchester and Leeds by 2037-40.

Mr Johnson said his plan for rail in the north would “identify the most effective design and sequencing of all relevant investments” in the north.

The planned High Speed 2 network
The planned High Speed 2 network (HS2)

Mr Johnson, who also announced £5bn for buses and cyclepaths, insisted that there would not be an “either/or” choice between investment in HS2 or northern rail links.

“Both are needed and both will be built as quickly and cost effectively as possible,” he said. “To make sure that happens, we will working with northern leaders explore options for creating a new delivery vehicle for Northern Powerhouse Rail and we will start treating HS2 north of Birmingham, Northern Powerhouse Rail and other local rail improvements as one integrated masterplan High Speed North.”

Tory MPs whose constituencies will be affected by construction work on the first phases of HS2 voiced disappointment at the PM’s decision.

Andrew Bridgen, the MP for North West Leicestershire, said the “unloved, unwanted and grossly mismanaged” HS2 project “could well be an albatross around this Government’s and the country’s neck moving forward”.

And Lichfield’s Michael Fabricant said he was “less than enthusiastic” about a route which failed to connect with either the Eurostar terminal for services to the continent or with Birmingham’s main New Street station.

Mr Fabricant said it was “very, very important that now HS2 is going ahead that we also compensate well those people in my constituency and his who will be affected by HS2?”

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said that services on HS2 lines “should be run under public ownership, so taxpayers see a return on their investment rather than lining the pockets of private or foreign state-owned companies”.

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said Mr Johnson should have opted for improvements to regional road and rail projects rather than the “costly and damaging” HS2.

The PM’s decision would give him the “dubious honour of being this century’s largest destroyer of ancient woodlands in the UK”, said Mr Sauven.

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