British high-speed rail link HS2 could cost more than its current price of £88bn – almost three times its original estimate of £33bn – but must still go ahead, a leaked government-commissioned review has revealed.
The document, which was planned to be released officially only after next month’s General Election, was obtained by The Times earlier this week.
Launched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in August this year, the review’s aim was to look at the costs and produce a “go or no-go” conclusion.
The paper, however, found that without the line, which would bring extra to relieve overcrowded services, “large ticket prices” would be needed to discourage people from travelling at peak times.
Former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee, who was appointed by Johnson to lead the review, held the opinion that the line will be essential in halving journey time from Leeds to Birmingham and cutting travel times between Newcastle and Birmingham by an hour.
The review also found that cities in the north and Midlands – even those not directly served by the line – will benefit from improved local and regional services as a result of improved capacity.
HS2 critics claim costs exceed benefits
Although Oakervee endorsed the line, the draft failed to get backing from the review’s deputy chair Lord Berkeley, who said he is considering writing his own report in due course of time.
According to the BBC, Lord Berkeley added that the review has a “lack of balance” and the costs of the scheme had not been properly scrutinised, finally claiming that the price could rise to £103bn.
In a letter sent to Oakervee, Lord Berkeley said about the review: “My concerns are about the process of the report’s preparation and its outcome.
“We had to complete the work in a very short time. I also detected a trend in may of the discussions within the review to accept that HS2 will go ahead…. rather than look at the pros and cons of alternative options.”
In response, Oakervee expressed regret that Lord Berkeley “feels unable to give his support”.
“He participated fully in panel discussions that have seen all other members converge their views, based on the extensive evidence considered,” Oakervee added.
However, Lord Berkeley is hardly alone. Campaign group Stop HS2’s chair Penny Gaines argued that the project “should be cancelled as soon as possible, so the government can focus on the real transport priorities”.
“HS2 was a bad project when it was originally announced and was supposed to cost £33bn, it was a bad project when it was supposed to cost £55bn and it is a bad project now that the cost is expected to be more than £88bn,” she added.
Prime Minister Johnson himself previously criticised the project, arguing that costs are “spiralling out of control”, while his senior aide Dominic Cummings described it as a “disaster zone”.
HS2 remains “shovel-ready”
Among the supporters of HS2 is the Labour party, which even proposed an extension of the line to Scotland in its 2017 election manifesto.
A similar sentiment is shared by Northern Powerhouse Partnership director Henri Murison, who said that the project “has the potential to unlock greater growth in the north and Midlands”.
“The Northern Powerhouse Independent Review on HS2 said that there were no identified credible alternatives to HS2 in order to deliver the same capacity,” he said.
Echoing his words, ethical infrastructure enforcement organisation, Compulsory Purchase Association chair Jonathan Stott, who is also managing director for property consultancy Gateley Hamer, said that despite the challenges the project has witnessed, it is “shovel-ready, needed, and should be delivered in its entirety” and “it will help to redress the huge imbalance between the economies of the north and the south of the country”.
Stott added that while the costs may have significantly increased, “a huge amount of money has already been spent, thousands of acres of land have already been acquired, and shovels are already in the ground.
“To pull the project at this stage would leave a huge scar across the landscape of central London, Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and central Birmingham.”
Amid political and economic uncertainty, Stott further said that HS2 can “help to maintain employment levels throughout their construction phase, encourage inward investment, increase economic confidence and, ultimately, even with a diluted business case, play a major part in improving connectivity between our major cities”.
Finally, Transport Salaried Staffs Association’s general secretary Manuel Cortes called on Johnson to commit to the realisation of HS2.
“Our concern from the start was that this Review was nothing more than a cosmetic exercise to appease Conservative backbenchers in the shires,” he said.
“The review has been a waste of time and money, leading to needless uncertainty for our members. Now we have the spectacle of a leak during Purdah which means no proper scrutiny can take place.
“No serious party leader can remain silent on HS,” he concluded. “When it comes to clean and green high-speed rail Britain is decades behind and it’s already taken too long to get out of the slow lane.”