THERE are renewed concerns from council leaders that Boris Johnson could be poised to scrap Phase 1 of HS2 between London and Birmingham, diverting the money to other transport projects further north. The eastern spur from Birmingham to the East Midlands and Leeds could also be at risk.
A meeting of politicians in Westminster has been told that the choice should not come down to better railway services in the North of England or HS2, because both are needed.
The Government has been holding fire over the publication of the Oakervee Review into the future of HS2. The final version, along with the separate but equally significant Williams Rail Review, were both intended to be published some weeks ago, but the December election caused various projects in Whitehall to be paused.
Government sources are insisting that there is still no final version of the review led by former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee yet, although his colleagues, including his deputy Lord Berkeley, were controversially stood down at the end of October. Lord Berkeley has since said that he does not agree with the likely findings of the Oakervee Review, and has published his own dissenting report.
The prime minister has acknowledged that he has an affection for big infrastructure projects, and is known to have been reluctant to scrap HS2, in spite of much higher costs. However, some sources are claiming that Downing Street has been cooling off since the election, and that the most likely casualty will be Phase 1.
At this week’s meeting in Westminster, Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese said he and his counterparts in West Yorkshire and the West Midlands are all ‘singing off the same hymn sheet’ over the need for HS2 in full.
He continued: ‘When we get down to what investment we need, we should not be making choices between local services, between Northern Powerhouse rail and HS2. The north of England is absolutely fed up of getting the crumbs from the table.’
Andy Street, who is Mayor of the West Midlands, told the meeting: ‘I’m probably the only person in the room that knows exactly what … Oakervee says because I sat on the review … What I am utterly confident of is that there is a strong economic case that will eventually win through. The reason there is a strong economic case is that we can already see the benefits on the ground in the West Midlands.’
The same story is being told in West Yorkshire. Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake also chairs the Core Cities project, and she said: ‘What we’ve seen in Leeds is just the promise of HS2 coming in has been transformational in itself. I want to make it absolutely clear that we can’t talk about Northern Powerhouse rail or HS2. We need the two together.’
Support for HS2 in full is far from unanimous outside Downing Street. As well as the opposition voiced by Lord Berkeley, a group of new Tory MPs has called on Mr Johnson to scrap the project, while long-standing HS2 critic Dame Cheryl Gillan, who is the MP for Amersham and Chesham on the route of Phase 1 in the Chilterns, has called for a rethink. She said: ‘We’ve got routes from London to Birmingham; that shouldn’t be a priority. It’s Birmingham northwards that should be the priority. I would absolutely freeze the London to Birmingham stretch and put it on ice.’
Rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris is insisting that no decision has been made. He would say only that ‘the transport secretary has spoken to Doug Oakervee and is now waiting for the final report. Only once we have the data from an independent source can we make a decision about its future. We hope to make that decision shortly.’