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Fri October 18 2019

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Big Construction holds its breath as axe hangs over HS2

22 Aug The government has published the terms of reference for a review into whether and how to proceed with the High Speed 2 project.

It might never happen...
It might never happen...

The review, which could undo years of national planning in just a few weeks, will be led by Douglas Oakervee, a former chair of Crossrail and HS2 itself, so presumed to be sympathetic. He will be supported by Labour peer Lord Berkeley, who as Tony Gueterbock worked on the Channel Tunnel project. He is portrayed as an HS2 sceptic.

In September 2013 Doug Oakervee said after working for 18 months on the project: “I believe HS2 is vital to the growth of the UK economy and will deliver the capacity our rail network sorely needs.”

For his review Mr Oakervee is supported by a panel consisting of Michele Dix, Stephen Glaister, Patrick Harley, Sir Peter Hendy, Andrew Sentance, Andy Street, John Cridland and Tony Travers. They have until the autumn to assess the benefits that the project offers and the full costs. The latter is likely to be trickier. There is growing consensus that the current official estimate of £56bn is at least £30bn off – and even at £56bn many voters believed that the cost-benefits didn't stack up.

HS2 is, however, one of the central planks of the national infrastructure plan, against which Big Construction is encouraged to make its investment decisions. Millions of pounds have been spent by contractors and their suppliers tooling up to shift millions of tonnes of earth and bore miles of tunnels. Publication of the UK’s first National Infrastructure Delivery Plan in 2016 was meant to have ended the tradition of stop-start and uncertainty that dogged politically sensitive infrastructure projects. The National Infrastructure Commission, made up of independent experts rather than vote-seeking politicians, was meant to take the politics out of planning. But that has now been exposed as a pipe dream, for planning and politics can never be disentangled.

The vested interests of UK construction who want to see HS2 go ahead regardless of whether it will cost £56bn, £86bn or more than £100bn, will hope that prime minister Boris Johnson has sufficient optimism left to peddle that he can focus on the benefits that HS2 promises, and see past the costs.

Options that the Oakervee review has to consider include:

  • reductions in speed
  • making Old Oak Common the London terminus, at least for a period
  • building only Phase 1
  • combining Phases 1 and 2a
  • different choices or phasing of Phase 2b, taking account of the interfaces with Northern Powerhouse Rail.

[The full terms of reference are online at www.gov.uk/government/publications/hs2-independent-review-terms-of-reference/terms-of-reference-for-the-independent-review-of-hs2]

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.

“Douglas Oakervee and his expert panel will consider all the evidence available, and provide the department with clear advice on the future of the project.”

Douglas Oakervee said: “The prime minister has asked me to lead this important review into the HS2 programme. I am looking forward to working with my deputy, Lord Berkeley, to advise the government on how and whether to progress with HS2, based on all existing evidence.”

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Arcadis UK chief executive Mark Cowlard said: “HS2 is a once in a generation project. It will radically transform the UK’s economic geography, improving connectivity, creating new jobs and spreading opportunities across the entire country that will be felt for decades to come. 

“We hope the independent review by Douglas Oakervee will swiftly come to the conclusion that the benefits of HS2 vastly outweigh the concerns, and that any concerns can be rightly addressed through the planning and development process. This will ensure the construction sector can move forward and deliver a railway which showcases the best of British engineering and innovation.”

Civil Engineering Contractors Association director of external affairs Marie-Claude Hemming said: “CECA has long argued that HS2 is vital in helping the UK government realise its ambition to rebalance the UK economy. The project will play a key role in securing economic growth post Brexit. Our research has shown that for every 1,000 jobs that are directly created in infrastructure construction, employment as a whole rises by 3,050 jobs.  And for each £1bn increase in infrastructure investment, UK-wide GDP increases by a total of £1.30bn.

“But its benefits go further than simply economics, it is an investment in Britain’s future, making the whole of the UK an attractive place to live and work. HS2 offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to completely reshape the way we travel across the UK, joining up Britain and helping provide opportunities for the many. Cancelling or delaying the project, which is well underway, will leave a sad legacy of what world class infrastructure could have been and damage industry confidence for the foreseeable future.”

Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect, said: “The massive benefits of HS2 to the Midlands are already being felt. Although a review must rightly scrutinise the project’s deliverability, benefits and costs, we must not lose sight of the fact that HS2 will transform our transport network for the next century. Scrapping it or de-scoping it would be a disaster for the Midlands and the whole country.”

Penny Gaines, chair of the Stop HS2 campaign group, said: “While we would welcome an independent review of HS2, having a former chair of HS2 Ltd does not make it sound particularly independent. Right from the start government reviews of HS2 have been stuffed full of supporters of high speed rail, and have tended to come out with gushing praise for HS2. Meanwhile independent reviews have criticised HS2 for the massive costs, disruption, outdated views of travel and the environmental damage HS2 will cause.

“We are particularly concerned that the terms of reference do not include the environmental costs of HS2. It will blast through numerous sensitive wildlife sites, including over 100 ancient woodlands. These are a real cost of the project and these environmental costs be included in the review.

“We are also really disappointed that preparatory work is to continue. People’s lives and livelihoods are being overturned as well as the natural environment being wrecked as we speak by HS2 preparatory work.”

Stop HS2 campaign manager Joe Rukin added: “Any review of this project must immediately look into whether and for how long parliament has been misled about the cost of HS2. It must take evidence from all former staff who have been gagged by the company and it must investigate the accusations made by Lord Berkeley and others in parliament that HS2 is rampant with fraud.”

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