Boris Johnson is facing a Tory rebellion over plans to green light the controversial HS2 rail project.
The prime minister was set to meet Chancellor Sajid Javid and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps today to discuss the future of the £100bn high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with multiple news outlets suggesting he will give it the go ahead.
It comes after the Financial Times reported that Javid has decided to back HS2 after concluding alternatives presented to him on other ways of improving infrastructure and delivering on the Tories’ election commitment did not stack up.
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The chancellor “has spent weeks studying the costs alongside potential alternatives and concluded that HS2 remains the best way to spark the ‘infrastructure revolution’ the Government wants to launch. Mr Javid is said to have returned to first principles and, while accepting that ‘no project should go ahead at any cost’, he believes the alternatives ‘were either unworkable or did not produce the same benefits’,” the Daily Mail’s Jason Groves reports.
Politico says: “Most of the reports rightly conclude that with Javid’s backing, the scheme looks certain to proceed.” However, The Times reports that up to 30 Tory MPs could vote against it, creating a possible headache for the prime minister despite his large majority in the Commons.
Arguments for scrapping
Thornton was hired for the project in the summer of 2015 and was responsible for buying all the land and property on which HS2 would build the railway.
According to Thornton: “Immediately we saw there was a substantial difference between the number of properties HS2 had budgeted to buy, and the reality of the data within the organisation's book of reference.
“We were finding there were approximately 12,000 properties plus additional provisions that required purchase but HS2's budgeting was based on around and about just over 5,000 properties for phase one.”
Thornton was sacked after refusing to present figures that he believed were wrong to the non-executive board, according to Sky News.
Bruce continued to work on the estimates after Thornton’s dismissal and told the broadcaster: “I'd gone to meetings with him [Thornton] when he was asked to present information that wasn't accurate.”
A report from the Lords Economic Affairs Committee last year warned that the costs of HS2 “appear to be out of control”. Sir Terry Morgan, former chair of HS2 and Crossrail, told the group that “nobody knows” what the final cost will be.
The Lords report led the government to form an independent review panel, with Shapps pledging a “rigorous” inquiry into the high-speed line. Alongside the Lords report, the National Audit Office - the government spending watchdog - has also reported that the project is around a decade behind schedule.
The prime minister is also a long-standing critic of the project, which is unpopular among the Conservative Party’s supporters. A YouGov poll in November 2019 found that 28% of Tories “strongly oppose” the project, compared with 17% of Labour voters and 19% of Lib Dem backers.
Support for HS2 is also fading among northern communities, with many now favouring the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project - a programme of rail infrastructure improvements north of Birmingham that has been dubbed HS3. The Lords committee has heard evidence that this project will deliver greater benefits to northern cities than HS2.
Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has also voiced doubts. Asked whether he would prioritise HS2 or linking up cities in the north of England, the former Labour MP said: “We need both but if that’s what it came down to I would choose rail investment west to east across the north of England. I believe that is the single highest transport investment priority for our country.”
Another nail in the HS2 coffin is that growth in rail traffic has also stalled. Seats “are generally available on routes to the north-west, undermining the last refuge argument that the extra capacity of a new line is desperately needed”, says the Financial Times’ Neil Collins.
Arguments against scrapping
The Department for Transport insists that the issue is not a question of “investing in either HS2 or other transport across the country - we are delivering both”.
“On top of this, the full benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail can only be realised off the back of HS2 – we are clear the North needs both, not either/or,” a spokesperson said.
Johnson won across the north-west in the December general election, and has also made a show out of pledging to spend billions in the Midlands and the North. Cancelling a major infrastructure project linking those areas to Britain’s economic hub of London would be a U-turn on that promise. The YouGov poll found that 31% of people in the North “tend to support” the plans, while 26% “strongly oppose” the project.
According to The Independent, the PM has ordered an “emergency summit” over the rail projects future, amid warning from industry figures that scrapping the project could cost “as much as £12bn”.
Local government and business leaders in the affected areas have also warned that any decision to scrap the rail project would undermine Britain’s “national prosperity for decades to come”.
More than 20 prominent figures including Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, have insisted that HS2 is already attracting investment and caution against any attempt to halt the scheme.
“Altogether, city regions around the route have plans to create nearly 500,000 jobs and add billions to the UK economy,” the group said in a letter to Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, The Times reports.
“Poor connections following decades of under-investment in the rail network between our major cities have been holding the UK back for far too long.”
Others argue that the scheme is too advanced to pull out now. “More than 900 properties worth almost £600m have been bought up to make way for the route,” says The Guardian.
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