IN A HOLE THE SIZE OF HS2, YOU HAVE TO KEEP DIGGING.

3 February 2020

A decision on HS2’s future is imminent. Last week, Transport Secretary Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP confirmed that the Government would make an announcement in February and that decision could come as early as this week.

HS2 is about more than just capacity and speed, it’s symbolic of the UK’s future. After phase one of HS2 passed its parliamentary stages back in 2017, the then Transport Secretary said “by investing in infrastructure, the government is seizing the opportunity provided by leaving the EU to build a more global Britain.”

That could have been said by Boris Johnson himself – he’s long been an advocate for big infrastructure projects (think garden bridges and airport islands). The latest Conservative party manifesto claimed “we believe in superb public services and infrastructure, not just because they are good things in themselves, but because they are the bedrock of a dynamic free market economy.”

The case for HS2 began in 2009 under the last Labour government, before David Cameron took it up during the coalition years. Then, in 2017, under Theresa May’s premiership, it completed its parliamentary passage and now, in 2020, Boris Johnson’s government will either preside over their legacy or tear up the plans completely.

Looking at our creaking Victorian rail network bursting at the seams, and seeing countries like Japan embrace the future with their high-speed Shinkansen bullet train network, it’s not a surprise that something had to be done.

Now that we have left the EU (at least in name), the Prime Minister will want to show how ambitious the UK is under his leadership. Big projects like HS2 are a perfect example of that ambition.

If the Prime Minister needs inspiration for building such projects quickly, the Dabie Mountain Regional Medical Centre is a fine example. Last Tuesday the hospital opened its doors to patients in a city just outside Wuhan in the Huangzhou District of China. The 1,000-bed hospital was built in just 48 hours. Following the outbreak of the Coronavirus in the city, over 500 people worked day and night to convert an empty building into a fully functioning hospital at incomprehensible speed.

Whilst the need and urgency for the hospital is, of course, far greater, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between its construction and our endless dither and delay over HS2.

Johnson will be mindful of being seen to act in the interests of the people living in the former ‘red wall’ of seats in the north of England. The second phase of HS2 would improve connectivity between some of those northern areas that voted Leave in 2016 and then Conservative in 2019 in large numbers – but 2040 is a long wait. It is now predicted that the total cost for the project is an eye-watering £106.8bn, almost double the original estimate made in 2015. Critics of the project point out that a fraction of this money would make an enormous difference to towns and cities across the north if it was used for electrification, longer trains and extended platforms in the current rail network.

And the Conservative party is far from united on the project. A significant number of Tory MPs have been elected with a personal mandate to oppose HS2, especially in areas directly impacted by the line. Greg Smith, the new MP for Buckingham, told the Today programme last week he will oppose HS2 “come what may.”

That said, with no planned parliamentary vote on HS2, this could be a headache for Boris Johnson, but nothing more. He has a commanding majority in the Commons and the political capital and authority to ignore dissenting voices on his backbenches and push the project forward.

Rumors from Whitehall suggest that it will be given the green light. As with Huawei last week, it appears that the Prime Minister will accept the decision taken by his predecessor.

The Government’s official review strongly advised against cancelling HS2 stating that it would benefit the UK transport system and that there were no “shovel-ready” alternative upgrades to existing railways.

The review also found that building only one section of the railway would not be worthwhile and that scrapping the scheme would have a detrimental impact on the “fragile” UK construction industry.

According to media reports last week, Chancellor Sajid Javid (or The Saj as he reportedly prefers) is now convinced HS2 is financially viable. Javid and Grant Shapps met with the Prime Minister late last week and are said to have concluded that HS2 must go ahead in full.

When he became Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said he wanted to “unite and level-up” the UK. HS2 is viewed by many as a step in the right direction to help spread opportunity and growth north of London so it’s no surprise that Tory Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, and Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, are both united in calling for HS2 to proceed.

With Britain trying to find its place in the world after Brexit and Boris Johnson desperate to secure his legacy as a successful and reforming Prime Minister for the whole country, expect to see other big infrastructure projects in the coming years too.

Ross Ewing is an Analyst at DRD Partnership in London, UK.

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