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Johnson says Britain should 'have the guts' to build HS2

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·3 mins read
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson wears a construction helmet reading "Prime Minister" during a visit to Wilton Engineering Services, part of a General Election campaign trail stop in Middlesbrough, England, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Britain goes to the polls on Dec. 12. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)
Prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to approve construction of HS2. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Boris Johnson has said Britain should “have the guts” to back the High Speed Two rail line (HS2), as he confirmed Europe’s biggest infrastructure project will go ahead.

He called it part of a “transport revolution” under his government, telling the Commons that Britain was being “held back by inadequate infrastructure”.

“The cabinet has given high-speed rail the green signal. We are going to get this done,” he said.

The prime minister’s announcement ends months of limbo over construction of the controversial north-south line, which has seen costs spiral and timetables over-run. He had put the scheme on hold with a new review after taking office.

Business leaders welcomed the statement, saying the “time for debate is over”.

It paves the way for preparation work to resume and building begin between London and Birmingham. Johnson said official figures showed this first phase could be delivered for £35-45bn ($45-58bn), and be running by the end of the decade if work started now.

Read more: Johnson promises 4,000 buses and ‘mini-Holland’ cycle routes alongside HS2 decision

Johnson also sought to play down fears for the future of the northern parts of the line where it forks into two beyond Birmingham. He said it was vital “the taxpayer gets maximum value” on this second phase, after reports in the Financial Times had suggested he could confirm a new review to look at cutting costs.

He said the West Midlands to Leeds and Crewe to Manchester stretches would go ahead, but management would be split from the rest of the project. They will instead become part of a new wider “high speed north” masterplan, co-ordinating all northern projects.

A single northern rail blueprint will also include the Northern Powerhouse Rail project and efforts to improve congested, problem-ridden east-west commuter lines.

Johnson told MPs: “Some have suggested delaying or even cancelling HS2 in order to get Northern Powerhouse Rail done more quickly. But I want to say to you — this is not an either/or proposition. Both will be built as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”

Johnson acknowledged “poor management” by government-owned HS2 Ltd in his statement, but said it did not undermine the economic case for HS2, “no matter how difficult and controversial”.

He said a review he had commissioned showed its “fundamental value” in providing faster journey times, and a vast increase in capacity and seats.

Johnson announced a shakeup of management of the project in a bid to “restore discipline”, including a minister solely responsible for overseeing it.

A leaked government review suggests costs could balloon to £106bn, compared to an initial budget of £32.7bn at 2011 prices. Meanwhile the launch date for the first phase between London and Birmingham has slid from 2026 to 2031.

Read more: Government ‘underestimated’ HS2 risks as £106bn line on the brink

The problems have attracted widespread criticism among many Conservative MPs, while campaigners also fear significant environmental damage.

But Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), welcomed the announcement “at long last,” saying it meant more passenger and freight services and better connectivity.

“The time for debate is over — let’s get the shovels out and put some high speed into the process of building it,” said Cherry.

Jonathan Geldart, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said there was “a degree of business sense” in splitting the project up, as long as its management was “properly scrutinised”.

Dr Jonathan Owens, a logistics expert at the University of Salford, said the announcement could also help get a deal by Chinese firm Jingye for Scunthorpe’s British Steel site over the line. He estimated HS2 would need around 170 tonnes of rail products that could be made there.