THE legislation needed to authorise Phase 2 of HS2 north of the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester has been postponed for a year, according to reports, while one campaigning group which is doubtful about the present scheme is inviting suggestions for alternative investment in transport.
The Times has reported that the Phase 2 Bill is being delayed so that it can be integrated with a proposed upgrade of the existing classic line between Manchester and Leeds, but it is not thought that this delay will change the planned opening date of 2033.
Meanwhile the consistently-critical Taxpayers’ Alliance, which opposes the whole high speed scheme, has launched a competition inviting suggestions for an alternative way of spending £56 billion – not necessarily on railways.
The Alliance says: “The Great British Transport Competition is asking all interested parties from across the UK to submit ideas for transport infrastructure projects. Entries will be judged by an expert panel, including qualified surveyors, politicians and rail industry experts. The winning bids will be professionally costed and presented to ministers.”
The Department for Transport said: “As the future backbone of our national rail network, HS2 is vital for delivering better connections between our major cities with faster and more frequent services, acting as a catalyst for jobs, housing and economic growth. We are keeping a tough grip on costs and the HS2 project remains on budget at £55.7 billion.”
HS2 Ltd, the government-owned company set up to manage the scheme, said it had ‘gained one of the largest cross-party parliamentary majorities of recent years’, and that “the programme remains on track and within its funding envelope’.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance is a right wing group which never seems to have much time for public transport. Its website banner announcing ‘The Great British Transport Competition’ features an aerial shot of a sprawling motorway junction, which is probably closer to the TA’s heart.
So is this a cynical attempt to divert public spending back to roads, in the guise of a competition which is theoretically intended to make better use of the HS2 budget?
The panel will consist of MP Craig Tracey, Lord Framlingham, Lord Berkeley, infrastructure and procurement specialist Michael Byng and two directors of the anti-HS2 Taxpayers’ Alliance: editorial director Phil Basey and political director James Roberts.
Of these, Conservative Mr Tracey’s constituency of North Warwickshire and Bedworth lies on the route of HS2 Phase 1. He last spoke in public about HS2 in September last year, when he told MPs during a debate that more tunnels ‘have been requested by constituents in the Kingsbury and Polesworth action groups in my constituency and would help to minimise the impact on residents and the environment, but also on the road infrastructure, which will be severely affected.’
Lord Framlingham was Conservative MP for for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich between 1997 and 2010, having previously served as the member for the former seat of Central Suffolk from 1983. He has consistently opposed HS2 and wants the scheme scrapped, telling the House of Lords in January this year that the NHS should come first.
Lord [Tony] Berkeley is well known in railway circles, but again he is not a fan of HS2, at least in the sense that both he and Michael Byng, an acknowledged expert in costing railway projects, have often predicted that the budget will need to be far higher than the official estimates. In March this year, Lord Berkeley challenged transport secretary Chris Grayling ‘to disprove estimates by Michael Byng that Phase One alone will cost £51.25 billion‘.
Mr Grayling had previously dismissed HS2 figures from Michael Byng as ‘nonsense’, but Lord Berkeley maintains that there has been a ‘marked unwillingness from ministers and officials to engage in a discussion about costs’.
The finances of HS2 do appear to be fragile, and the doubts have perhaps been heightened by news that Crossrail (aka The Elizabeth Line) will cost more and open late, at least across central London, where the opening date has been pushed back from this December to later next year.
The Taypayers’ Alliance has no official standing, but it is quite entitled to make suggestions about public spending. Whether ministers will take any notice of the results of this ‘competition’, which will be judged entirely by people who have already expressed grave doubts about HS2 is, of course, quite another matter.