Following the recommendations of the independent Oakervee review on the benefits and impact of HS2, the Prime Minister gave the go ahead to HS2 alongside major improvements to local transport networks across the country. Construction work on Phase One of HS2 has now commenced, while Phase 2a has also achieved royal assent.
HS2 will form the backbone of the UK’s transport network, delivering a significant increase in rail capacity, with hundreds of thousands of extra seats. It will cut journey times, bring our biggest towns and cities closer together, enhance North-South connectivity, boost productivity in the Midlands and the North, and crucially it will help to spread prosperity more evenly across the country. HS2 will also play an important role in delivering the Government’s net zero carbon objectives.
Let me be clear that this is not an either / or decision between HS2 and improving the rest of the existing rail network, in particular local services in the Midlands and North. HS2 is in fact integral to giving the regions the fast connections they need.
I have been reassured that Ministers will work hard to speed up the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail. More broadly, ‘High Speed North’ will be established to ensure an integrated, effectively sequenced plan to make sure the North and Midlands have the rail capacity and connections they need – east to west and north to south.
I am also particularly pleased about the Government’s determination to see a line drawn under the failures of HS2 Ltd’s management, transparency and cost control to date. A dedicated Minister with specific responsibility for oversight and accountability of HS2 has been appointed and they will present regular reports to Parliament to enhance transparency.
HS2 Ltd.’s role will also change. The complex Euston station element will become the responsibility of a new body, as will the design and construction of Phase 2b. This will enable HS2 Ltd to focus its energies on delivering Phases 1 and 2a successfully.
In addition, I understand that Ministers carefully considered the conclusions of the Oakervee review’s report before taking the decision to press ahead with HS2. The review was tasked with testing the existing evidence to produce an assessment that would allow the Government to make a fully informed decision about whether or how to proceed with the project. A panel of experts who represented a range of views supported the review to ensure an independent, thorough and objective assessment of the project.
Amongst other things, the review considered the case for high speed rail, how a new high speed rail line could benefit the UK economy, the design and specification of the HS2 project, how it linked to the existing rail network and other transport projects, the costs of the project and the impact of cancelling all or part of the scheme. The review recommended proceeding with HS2, but with reformed scrutiny and oversight to protect the interest of passengers and taxpayers.
I also believe the enormous potential of HS2 for the whole nation outweighs its costs. I welcome that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority believes Phase 1 of HS2 can be delivered within its current projected cost of £35-£45 billion in today’s prices. The Full Business Case for Phase One was approved in April this year which included a robust cost-benefit analysis. Current costs will also be interrogated to identify where savings can be made. Indeed, HS2’s benefits must be matched by tight cost controls going forwards. I am pleased that Parliament will receive regular 6-monthly progress reports, the first of which is due later this year, which will set out the latest cost and schedule position.
As previously mentioned, the Government has committed to providing an update to Parliament every six months on the progress of HS2, the first of which was published in October 2020. It was reported that various areas of concern had been identified, amounting to cost pressures of £800 million. As I understand it, these are to be managed within the project’s dedicated contingency fund of £5.3 billion. The target cost available includes this delegated contingency, for managing the risk and uncertainty that are an inherent part of delivering a major project, such as HS2. As such, I continue to believe that there is enormous potential in HS2 for the whole nation, which outweighs its costs. HS2 will be vital in bringing our biggest cities closer together, and levelling up the economy to bring new opportunity to people across the country.
It is also important to recognise that the West Coast Main Line is currently at breaking point and is unable to cope with the growth in demand. However, simply upgrading the West Coast Main Line would not provide a lasting solution. It is estimated that even an upgrade which prioritised boosting capacity to commuter and intermediate destinations with new rolling stock and infrastructure upgrades would only produce benefits up to the mid-2030s if demand on the line continues to grow at its current rate. Indeed, demand could increase by approximately 80 per cent in the next 15 years (before the full HS2 network is opened). This type of upgrade would also involve substantial costs and be hugely disruptive for passengers over a prolonged period.
Furthermore, there are currently no shovel-ready alternative investments to HS2 in the existing network, and years would be needed to identify and develop new proposals.
Excluding HS2, the Government will still make a record £47.9 billion available for the rail network between 2019 and 2024. Indeed, this is the biggest investment in the railways since Victorian times. It will see commuter and main line routes being upgraded, the introduction of thousands of new carriages and reliability improved. I am pleased that the Government has also committed £500 million to drive forward the process of reconnecting communities cut off from the network by the controversial Beeching cuts.
I also understand that HS2 Ltd and its contractors are saying that they expect to recruit around 22,000 roles over the coming years to help build the Phase One section of the route. I welcome that HS2 Ltd has already engaged with thousands of British businesses, to aid them in winning work on the HS2 project. So far around 95 per cent of businesses that have already delivered works for HS2, awarded directly and through the supply chain, have been won by British companies, with many more opportunities to come in the future.
Moreover, you may be aware that the HS2 planned routes are separated into various phases. The route for Phase 1, from London to the West Midlands, has been confirmed, and work is already well underway. Legislation for Phase 2a, from Birmingham to Crewe, received royal assent in February. Phase 2b comprises of two proposed ‘legs’ to the Phase 2 route: the eastern leg from the West Midlands to Leeds, and the Western leg from Crewe to Manchester. As I understand it, the Phase 2b routes are yet to be confirmed and may change.
I welcome that the Government has made clear its commitment to delivering HS2 Phase 2b and transformational rail improvements. The Government has also accepted the findings of the Oakervee Review, which concluded that Phase 2b needs to be considered as part of an Integrated Rail Plan for the north and Midlands which also includes Northern Powerhouse Rail, Midlands Rail Hub, and other major Network Rail schemes to ensure these are scoped, designed, delivered, and can be operated as an integrated network. I understand that the Integrated Rail Plan, drawn up by the Government, alongside HS2 Ltd and local leaders, will published later this year, and will consider how best to do this. It is my hope that this will allow the Government to fulfil their commitment to bring forward transformational rail improvements along the HS2 route as quickly as possible, and I will continue to monitor this situation closely.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has also formally ordered the redesign of the HS2 terminus at Euston station, following recommendations made in the Oakervee Review in 2020. The review recommended that the station should be scaled back to provide a solution based around 10 HS2 platforms, a single stage build and increased oversite development, as the planned two-stage build would prolong the construction of the HS2 station, incurring further cost. I understand that all three recommendations made in the review have been worked into the redesign of the station. While being smaller than originally planned, the Department have assured that the redesigned HS2 station at Euston would not prevent the future operation of services on the HS2 Eastern Leg.
Finally, I welcome that there was a Westminster Hall debate on HS2 on 13 September. However, due to prior diary commitments I was unable to attend it, but I will make sure to follow this issue closely.