Express & Star

Is it the end of the line for opponents of HS2?

The worst kept secret in politics is finally out – HS2 will go ahead despite being billions of pounds over budget and years behind schedule.

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HS2 protest march at Kings Bromley

Boris Johnson travelled to the West Midlands to hail a “transport revolution” as he confirmed the controversial line will proceed in full, with work on the first section between London and Birmingham’s Curzon Street interchange expected to start imminently.

“The cabinet has given high-speed rail the green signal. We are going to get this done,” the PM said, adding that he hoped the first trains would be running by the end of the decade.

Phase 2a, which carves through Staffordshire on its way to Crewe, and Phase 2b from Birmingham to Leeds, has been recast as a “regeneration” of transport in the north, with the line to the north west to proceed following a review.

The PM’s announcement came alongside a pledge for an additional £5 billion over five years on buses and cycle routes, which he said will result in more frequent services, including on Sundays, simpler and cheaper fares, and new priority schemes to allow buses to skirt traffic jams.

The numbers:

  • £32.7 billion: Original budget for HS2 at 2011 prices.

  • £88 billion: HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the final bill at 2019 prices.

  • 60 minutes: Journey time saving between Manchester and London compared with the fastest existing services.

  • 399: MPs voted in favour of the hybrid Bill for Phase 1, while 44 voted against it.

  • 300,000: Passengers per day expected to travel when the railway is fully open.

  • 48: Maximum number of trains running on the network every hour.

  • 30,000: Jobs supported by HS2 at the peak of construction.

  • 225mph: Top speed of the trains.

  • 345 miles: New high-speed track to be built.

  • 38: Age someone turning 18 today could be by the time HS2 is completed, if the plan recommended by HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook last year is enacted.

Mr Johnson, who visited Birmingham to outline his plans in full and visited the Curzon Street Station site yesterday, also pledged improvements to local rail services in the Midlands and the north.

He vowed to get to grips with HS2’s “exploded” costs, which could triple to £106bn according to the Government’s official Oakervee review.

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And he conceded that the project had been poorly managed by HS2 Ltd, which he said has not “distinguished itself” with its handling of local communities impacted by the line. Mr Johnson also announced that a new HS2 minister will be appointed alongside a boardroom shake-up in a bid to “restore discipline” to the scheme.

An artist’s impression of Curzon Street station

HS2 has been shrouded in controversy since its inception 10 years ago, having repeatedly bust its budget and provoked concerns over damage to the environment and wildlife.

The announcement by Mr Johnson was met with dismay from the communities on its route through Staffordshire.

A report based on data gathered from the country’s 14 Woodland Trusts warns the line will “push nature to the brink”, with irreplaceable ancient woodland and wildlife-rich habitats at risk of destruction or damage.

It said that installing high-speed lines could lead to the loss or damage of up to 108 ancient woodlands in England, while placing protected creatures such as white-clawed crayfish, the willow tit and the dingy skipper butterfly under threat of local extinction.

The Stop HS2 campaign has expressed concern that a decision could be made to approve HS2 before the outcome of a Serious Fraud Office investigation, which is believed to be probing allegations of corruption in the award of contracts.

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Staffordshire campaigner Joe Rukin said: “It is now absolutely clear that HS2 is a project that has been promoted throughout by statements that have turned out not to be true, so it’s not unreasonable to want to know if the whole thing has been fuelled by fraud.

“If it is the case that the allegations are true, a decision to go ahead with the project would be sending out a message that it is open season, that scrutiny, that probity, that honesty, that none of those things matter.”

Villagers turn out in Great Haywood back in 2013

HS2 has already had a devastating impact on villages in Staffordshire, including Hopton, which faces being dissected by the line. Parish council chairman Paul Gilbert said: “The decision is no surprise, and for us, the damage has already been done to the local community by people selling off their homes and moving to other areas.

“It has caused a close knit community to split apart. The village will never be the same as it was before.”

Elsewhere the decision has been met by a mixed response, with HS2 supporters such as West Midlands Mayor Andy Street hailing it as a “once-in-a-generation infrastructure project”, while opponents say it reflects a monumental error of judgement on the part of the Government.

Mr Street, a vocal backer of the project, said the region could now “get on and reap the considerable benefits” but also called for a look at ways to bring the cost down.

“HS2 was always going to be a game-changer for the region, particularly because of the impact it is going to have both on employment and our local transport network,” he said.

“Not only will HS2 create tens of thousands of jobs for local people, but it is also going to free up vital capacity on our local rail network, meaning we can run more reliable and frequent local commuter services.”

Work will get started in earnest on the HS2 route following the Government's committment to the scheme

The Mayor added: “We do need to make sure that we find savings to bring the cost of HS2 down, and we need rigorous management to make sure that we get it built as soon as possible.

“It has been a hard-fought campaign, but ultimately I always believed the economic case would win through and that the Government would give HS2 the go-ahead.”

Former Labour Transport Minister John Spellar said the move showed that Mr Johnson was “clearly too scared to be bold and take on his civil servants”.

“They have already wasted £8 billion of taxpayer’s money without any track being laid – and are about to waste an extra £100 billion,” the Warley MP said.

North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson, who has been a vocal critic of HS2, said the rail line was a poor deal for taxpayers.

“This is a disappointing decision, I don’t believe HS2 is value for this huge sum of money,” he said. “I would like to see it spent on local transport programmes, and 21st century technology like world-class broadband. The money could be used across the Midlands and the north for better local rail and road schemes, and everybody in every part of the UK are going to see their lives improved economically, socially and educationally if we had world-class broadband.”

Stone MP Sir Bill Cash says he spoke with Mr Johnson this week urging him to reconsider his decision. He said he had pointed out that the line represents an “economic millstone” which could cost upwards of £200bn.

“HS2 is a disastrous white elephant,” he said. “I have fought against it for years and I will continue to press the case despite this decision”

Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant, another long term opponent of HS2, said the PM’s decision was “disappointing”. He said: “I think people in years to come will look back on this project and just say, they could have done it so much better. I for one cannot support it.”