The future of the HS2 network in the UK has continually resulted in indecision and since  the conception of the project by the Labour government in 2009, the construction plan has sparked debate from environmental activists and politicians.

In yet another twist, on 21 August the government announced that it has launched an independent inquiry into the plan and whether the high-speed rail scheme linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds should be approved, amended or scrapped entirely. Former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee will lead the inquiry, with Lord Berkeley – a long-term critic of the scheme – acting as his deputy.

This review will include its benefits and impacts, affordability, deliverability and scope, its phasing, its relationship with Northern Powerhouse Rail, the environmental impact and the business case made for HS2, Department of Transport (DfT) said.

Once complete, a final report – due this autumn – will be sent to transport secretary Grant Shapps, with oversight from the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer. This will then “inform the government’s decisions on next steps for the project,” the DfT said.

If the project goes ahead, the first phase of the line is due to open in 2026 linking London and Birmingham. It would then be extended to Manchester and Leeds by 2033.

Weighing up economic benefits and environmental issues

The project has been seeing many obstacles such as the increasing budgets. In July, the current chairman of the project, Allan Cook, reportedly warned that the total cost could exceed the current budget of £56bn by £30bn.

Some argue that despite the costs, the HS2 construction would create jobs ,improving economic growth. Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect said: “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,” she said.

Is HS2 worth the estimated £106 billion price tag?

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While the project will boost employment opportunities in the north of England, some MPs believe that the costs it entails is hardly worth it.

Conservative MP for Banbury, Victoria Prentis opined that the resources for the project outweighs the advantages. “I do not feel that £100bn is worth some jobs in Birmingham. I think there may be other ways in assisting with employment,” she said. “HS2 is a white elephant that is trampling over the dreams and aspirations of my constituents and I cannot support it.”

Apart from costs, some believe the construction will hamper the environment. Campaign group Stop HS2 have said that the operation of the line will cause increased carbon emissions, and damage natural areas in the ecosystems they support. It has called to “put the brakes on HS2.”

Environmental activist group Woodland Trust even issued a call for action against the HS2 as it would destroy woodlands and the consequences of the project on the UK landscape would be “wholly unacceptable.” The campaign had already received more than 12,000 signatures at the time of writing.

HS2 might prove to be an “asset”

Rail Consultant for professional services firm Odgers Interim Chris Jones said after Britain leaves the EU the project might help the UK economy to compete with the European market and that it is “a vital post-Brexit economic asset.”

It is an iconic British rail project, demonstrating the UK’s commitment to moving with the times and that it no longer lags behind its European counterparts – many of whom have their own high-speed rail networks.

“The review must be carried out in light of a post-Brexit economy. With many analysts asserting the UK’s departure from the EU spells economic downturn, the continued commitment to infrastructure spending will be a much needed economic boon for Brexit UK,” Jones said.

Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association Darren Caplan is bullish about the project despite the increasing investment in the project and said that “its economic benefits far outweigh the costs, with more than £90bn in GDP growth per year generated across the country.”

Caplan noted that the construction will “ensure the UK gets the world-class rail infrastructure and additional capacity it needs in the years ahead.”

“HS2 provides clear economic and regeneration benefits to the whole country, with the great cities of the Midlands and the north in particular making it clear they are united in their support for the project as the catalyst for their renaissance,” Caplan said.  

High Speed Rail Industry Leaders (HSRIL) have welcomed the publication of the Oakervee Review. A spokesperson said: “We urge Mr Oakervee to consider how HS2 services could reach Scotland in three hours, in line with the Prime Minister’s commitments to the Union and to reducing domestic aviation in line with our net zero targets.

“HS2 must be delivered in full. The evidence is overwhelming. There is no Plan B for bringing the country back together,” the spokesperson said.

TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes said the Government is “going down the wrong track” in announcing an official review of HS2 project.

However, Cortes said he was confident the review. He said: “This is a golden opportunity – using a clean and green scheme – to put rocket boosters under regional economies across the country, create thousands of additional jobs and better connect cities.

“HS2 is an essential pillar of our country’s modernisation and will be vital in assisting local authorities and business in the rebalancing of Britain’s economy.”

Solving skill shortages

Apart from serving as an advantage for the economy, industry experts said that it could make different parts within the UK more accessible, solving commuting problems for workers.

“This development has the potential to really balance out the North and South divide that’s still prominent in the country by improving connectivity for businesses based in the northern part of the UK,” said associate director for rail at recruitment company Samuel Knight International Dave Allen. “This is of particular benefit for the numerous skills short industries such as energy and rail.”

Given how the government estimated that the project will boost the economy by creating 15,000 new jobs by 2020, many believe the project must go ahead. However, it’s important to ensure the process is implemented the right way.

Senior Consultant at engineering and quality services company Expleo Jonathan Smith believes that although the network has its benefits, “the ramifications are much bigger than that.”

He said: “It is imperative that the UK government gets the preparation phase right. As they launch their independent review of HS2, they must ensure that the right requirements, scope and planning are put in place alongside full visibility and transparency on progress and cost.

At the moment, it feels as though the HS2 project is too big and lacking direction. A ‘big bang’ approach is being pursued, as evidenced by the spiralling overheads and bureaucracy which are emerging, with costs ranging from £50bn to £100bn,” Smith said.

Businesses in the north call out indecision

Businesses in Northern England are concerned that the HS2 review will result in the plan being scrapped, hampering the potential investment for the region.

Chief executive of Liverpool BID Company, the NGO supporting 1,500 businesses in Liverpool, Bill Addy is worried that in the wake of the review, Liverpool, which has been of core support for the HS2 will be ignored by the government.

Addy said: “The indecisiveness on HS2 by this current Government knows no bounds.

“HS2 without Liverpool is nothing short of lunacy. For the north to become the economic powerhouse that it can, there has to be a continued investment into a solid connectivity plan for our city region – home to one of Europe’s most advanced container ports.

“Following the Transport Secretary’s disappointing announcement today, my real fear now is that come the end of the year Liverpool City Region will be left behind,” argued Addy.

Chief executive of Liverpool Chamber of Commerce Paul Cherpeau agreed with Addy and added that going ahead with the project will beef up the railway industry in the UK. He said: “By delivering new, dedicated express routes between cities, HS2 will provide much-needed capacity to Britain’s rail network and free up space for local and freight services on existing lines. The delivery of other transformational schemes, including Northern Powerhouse Rail, rely on the connections that HS2 will make.

“HS2’s importance goes far beyond train services. Its anticipated completion is already attracting investors and will continue to attract investment to surrounding areas, rejuvenate local economies and create opportunities for businesses across the supply chain,” said Cherpeau.

Lib Dem MP’s call the project a failure for the north

Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West Jane Brophy said: “We warned from the start that the Tories’ long-term indecision on HS2 will cost taxpayers heavily and fail Northerners.

“The Liberal Democrats have always been in favour of HS2 but we have been absolutely clear that construction should have started in the North.

“That way, when the project inevitably encountered the issues it has, the areas most in need of infrastructure upgrades would have received them first.

“However, as things stand, rail links in London and the South will still be upgraded, whilst Northern links are left in their dire 1970s state – as usual,” said Brophy.

John Leech, who was on the Transport Select Committee during HS2’s early stages, called for the project to begin in Manchester. The leader of the Liberal Democrats in Manchester said that despite the constant discussion for increasing the infrastructure in the north “prices are higher and trains are worse than ever before.

“This is a frankly predictable failure from a London-obsessed government,” said Leech.