Will review finally derail costly HS2 project?
The prospect of HS2 being scrapped has never been greater after the expected review into the future of the £56 billion line was formally announced.
The independent review, which will be led by former Crossrail and HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee, will look at the key areas surrounding the project, most notably its cost and whether it can be built on time.
And if the finances of the line are as bad as many predict, then the chances of it ever being completed look decidedly bleak.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who pledged the review during his Tory leadership campaign, recently told the Star that its final cost was likely to be “north of £100 billion”,an expense that many may find difficult to justify.
This is particularly true at a time when Mr Johnson is looking to open up the public purse to spend billions on police officers, prisons, schools and the NHS.
Under current plans the first phase of the high-speed railway is scheduled to open between London and Birmingham in 2026, with Phase 2a passing through Staffordshire to Crewe launching in 2027, followed by Phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to Leeds, in 2033.
Around £5bn has been spent up to now – a figure that is set to escalate dramatically later this year should the main work start on schedule.
Questions have been raised over HS2 since it was first dreamt up by the Department for Transport (DfT) under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, with opposition initially centring around its environmental impact.
But in recent years the route’s cost has been the major source of concern, with an initial budget of £33bn ballooning to £55bn – a figure that Theresa May’s government stuck steadfastly to despite growing evidence that it was way off the mark.
The past few months have seen a number of reports that have served as fuel for those who oppose the line.
In January, Sir Terry Morgan, the former chairman of HS2 and Crossrail, told a committee that “nobody knows” what the final price of HS2 will be, prompting the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee to describe the cost of the project as being “out of control”.
A House of Commons report followed in May, showing the DfT and HS2 Ltd were aware that costs were up by around £9bn some four years ago – information which was not revealed publicly at the time.
Then last month HS2 chairman Allan Cook reportedly warned the DfT that its cost could surpass its budget by up to £30bn.
Announcing the independent review, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The Prime Minister has been clear that transport infrastructure has the potential to drive economic growth, redistribute opportunity and support towns and cities across the UK, but that investments must be subject to continuous assessment of their costs and benefits.
“That’s why we are undertaking this independent and rigorous review of HS2.”
He has previously described the review as a “root and branch” exercise which would result in “a sort of go/no decision”.
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street – a supporter of HS2 – is part of the panel. He said: “I can understand why the Prime Minister has called a review as we need to make sure the management and budget of HS2 are under control, and that the project provides value for money for taxpayers.
“This review means we have to make the business case for HS2 again and win the argument, which I am more than confident of doing.
“HS2 is mission critical for the West Midlands as it will free up the capacity we so desperately need on our existing railways, drive huge economic growth, and is already creating jobs and building new homes in the region.”
The Mayor’s insistence of the project’s merits is backed by business leaders and transport planners in the West Midlands, with Midlands Connect director Maria Machancoses saying scrapping HS2 would be a "disaster" for the region.
But the dissenting voices are many.
Lord Berkeley has been appointed the deputy chairman of the review, a railway expert and Labour peer who has repeatedly challenged the DfT’s cost figures and warned that the budgets were spiralling out of control.
He said: “One thing we’ve been promised is all the evidence and I don’t believe the DfT has given all the honest evidence. There is so much that they haven’t disclosed.”
West Midlands Brexit Party MEP Andrew Kerr said continuing with the project was akin to “throwing good money after bad”, and that shutting it down immediately was “the most prudent course of action”.
A spokesperson for the Stop HS2 campaign said: “If the Government are serious about this being a genuine review, they have to stop the irreversible destruction that is happening right now.”
The review comes at a time when there is a major push for more investment in northern tracks, while opponents of HS2 such as Tory MP Sir Bill Cash want to see new and improved lines spanning across the country from east to west.
We will not have to wait long to find out the fate of HS2, with the findings of the review set to be revealed in the autumn.