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Johnson's puts his jackboot into HS2 engineers

11 Feb 20 Prime minister Boris Johnson has delivered a public kicking to the people that have been battling against political porridge to get the High Speed 2 project past the starting line. Phil Bishop reports.

Johnson plays to the gallery
Johnson plays to the gallery

Although Mr Johnson has been persuaded by former HS2 chairman Doug Oakervee not to scrap the project despite ballooning cost estimates, he stuck the boot into the engineers and surveyors who have been doing all the work with a notable lack of support from him to date.

“When it comes to advocating HS2,” the prime minister told the House of Commons today, “it must be said that the task is not made easier by HS2 Limited, the company concerned. Speaking as a member of parliament whose constituency is on the route, I cannot say that HS2 Limited has distinguished itself in the handling of local communities.”

He continued: “As everybody knows, the cost forecasts have exploded. But poor management to date has not detracted in my view from the fundamental value of the project.”

He said that the six-week Oakervee review that he had commissioned seven months ago (and only today got around to publishing) “leaves no doubt of the clinching case for high speed rail”.

He then credited opponents of the scheme – name-checking Chesham & Amersham MP Cheryl Gillan – for ‘design improvements’ such as getting more of the line put in tunnels, with no apparent realisation that this might have been a key contributor the ‘exploding’ costs.

The politicians, he suggested, had rescued the project from the engineers. 

In listing the benefits of HS2, he emphasised the 38-minute journey time from Birmingham airport to London, hinting (but not saying) that this might impact on the case for a third runway at Heathrow.

Having firmly trashed the reputations of all those involved in HS2 Ltd to date, the prime minister has now promised to shake up the management and ‘restore discipline’. A dedicated minister for HS2 will be appointed and a new ministerial oversight group set up to keep the engineering experts under control. It is not yet clear which minister has the necessary experience to manage a £100bn construction project.

"There will be changes to the way HS2 is managed," he said."We will, in line with Oakervee’s recommendations, 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 on time and on budget."

He continued: "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, in line with the findings of the Oakervee review, look at how we can best design and integrate rail investments across the north – including Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester."

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Boris Johnson has thus become the fourth prime minister to give the green light to HS2, after Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May. Maybe now those contractors who signed contracts in the summer of 2017 will be able to start doing their jobs.

While the whole undertaking remains hugely controversial (and not just because of the cost), which explains the prime minister’s desire to play to the gallery, vested interests in the construction industry welcome the latest green light fulsomely.

Civil engineering contractors, who will build the project, said that the decision ‘heralds a new dawn’ for the UK infrastructure sector. Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) director of external affairs Marie-Claude Hemming said: “After months of uncertainty, we applaud the government’s decision to give the green light to HS2. This is an infrastructure project on a scale of ambition that can only be matched in our country by the achievements of the Victorian generation in building our railways in the first place.

“HS2 will be transformational to the economy of the UK, and will be used by generations to come. It will not only deliver a step-change in rail capacity, but will help in the fight against climate change, offering a cleaner, greener way to travel, with significantly lower carbon emissions than equivalent car journeys or domestic flights. Furthermore, it will connect eight of Britain’s 10 largest cities, creating jobs, boosting growth, and improving lives.

“CECA has long argued that HS2 must be delivered alongside Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Engine Rail to deliver world-class connectivity for 21st century Britain. Now that the government has given the green light to this once-in-a-generation scheme, we look forward to working to ensure that its full benefits, and of other necessary improvements to our rail infrastructure, are brought forward by getting spades in the ground without delay.

“The decision to go ahead with HS2 heralds a new dawn for the UK’s infrastructure sector. Our members look forward to putting the uncertainty of the past behind them, and delivering this game-changer of a scheme.”

The Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE), which represents the firms that have designed HS2, is equally enthusiastic about the project. Chief executive Hannah Vickers said: “While HS2 provides plenty of lessons in how we plan, execute and communicate major infrastructure projects in the UK, today all in the industry will be delighted to have seen common sense finally prevail. 

“This is great news for people across the midlands and the north who will benefit from an economic boost by being better connected. Thanks to capacity being opened up across the network projects like Midlands Rail and Northern Powerhouse Rail can become a reality. Finally, quicker links will encourage people off cars and planes, vital if society is to meet its net zero targets.

“There has been enough discussion and delay. HS2 was first announced nearly a decade ago. We need to stop talking and get on with building the future.”

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