Will Europe’s largest infrastructure project go ahead?


By Martha Kool, Associate

The first phase of HS2, linking London and Birmingham, is scheduled to open in December 2026. It will cut journey times between the UK’s first and second cities to 49 minutes and dramatically increase capacity. But its impact over the next seven years will be enormous in the towns, villages and communities along the route.

Birmingham will reap major benefits from the scheme’s first phase. It will create construction jobs, attract crowds of visitors to the city, and draw large numbers to relocate to an area suddenly within commutable distance to the capital. It will also motivate developers to invest in an already growing economy. With major regeneration projects taking place all over Birmingham, and more tall towers arriving in the city, HS2 can only add to a booming period of growth.

However, the project is not without controversy. At a local level, a lack of interested contractors meant HS2 had to rethink its strategy for the build of Birmingham’s HS2 station earlier this year. Similarly, it has just had to revise a £1.5billion deal to construct part of the track, again because of a lack of bidders. Contractors, it seems, are not always willing to take on the risk posed by such a huge, changeable project.

What is putting companies off committing to the scheme? To answer this question, we need to look to central Government. Our new Prime Minister, in post for less than a month, is not exactly firm concerning his position on HS2. Pre-leadership-election, Boris showed strong signs that he would call the project off if given the chance. More recently, he seems to have had a change of heart. His first major interview outside of London took place in Birmingham and he said he would “hesitate for a long time” before thinking about scrapping the project.

Is the Cabinet on track?

Cabinet voices who would resist calls to cancel HS2 are significant. Grant Shapps, the new Secretary of State for Transport, has voted consistently in favour of the scheme, and Chancellor Sajid Javid has been outspoken in his support.

The potential for the project being seen through to completion isn’t clear-cut: Birmingham isn’t guaranteed its high-speed link yet. Mr Johnson has requested an independent review into the project, and claims they are assessing whether it could “be re-profiled in any way”. Chris Heaton-Harris, one of two Ministers of State at Transport, and responsible for rail, has only voted in favour of building the second phase of HS2, north of Birmingham. It’s possible that Boris, who has already backed ‘HS3’, a cross-country link between Manchester and Leeds, could prioritise the northern phase of the project. Take this to its logical conclusion, and it’s easy to foresee a scenario where the London-Birmingham link never materialises.

The future of HS2 is in the balance. To be surer of the project’s direction, we will have to rely on announcements from Government and the upcoming Budget. Birmingham will be keeping its collective fingers crossed, and there’s no doubt that the Northern cities will also be lobbying for East-West connectivity to be prioritised.


Photo courtesy HS2.

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