HS2 minister warns of 'chilling impact' if project is dropped

HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson has said scrapping HS2 would have a 'chilling impact' on the UK construction sector and inward investment, and would send a 'terrible message' in response to the pandemic.

Mr Stephenson was responding to questions from the Transport Select Committee this week about the controversial rail line, which is now thought to cost around £106bn.

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He was pressed on alleged comments from Douglas Oakervee, who carried out a government review that was supportive of the project, in which he suggested the biggest driver for his decision to proceed was not rail capacity but using HS2 as a bailout to the construction industry.

Mr Stephenson said he didn't 'recognise those comments'. He pointed out that approval was given to the scheme before COVID hit when there was 'no need to give significant support to the construction sector'.

Reflecting on the impact of COVID to the business case for the project, Mr Stephenson said: 'The strategic case for HS2 is about joining up the biggest cities in England and reducing journey time through to Scotland.

'I think that strategic case still holds sway. If you look at places that have suffered pandemics in the past, you still see urbanisation. Who knows what the impact of COVID-19 will be? It could change that global megatrend, but personally, I can still see many younger people wanting to live in the cities. I can't see that changing because of COVID.

'We are constantly modelling these impacts, but it is still too early to say what the impact of Covid 19 will be. At this point, we can't model with any accuracy.'

He pointed out that the next full business case will be if Parliament gives Royal Assent to phase 2a bill, which recently passed the scrutiny process in the Lords and has gone back to the Commons.

'That will have to have the justification of continuing the line to Crewe but will have to revise the business case of the full network, subject to the outcome of the integrated rail plan which has still has not published but will be soon.'

Mr Stephenson said there were risks of costs increasing on Phase One due to issues around works on Euston station.

Clive Maxwell, director general of the High Speed Rail Group at the Department for Transport, also said he could not give assurances that the cost would not increase on Phase 1.

'We have been looking at various options to deal with cost pressures and look at quicker ways of building Euston station,' he said.

'There are options for a single phase or two phase build programme. The single would take longer to have first set of platforms open, but it would allow all the work to be completed in a shorter timescale and therefore be cheaper. I know that is something local residents would prefer.'

We have been working with HS2 Ltd, which is now starting to prepare work on different design arrangements that would allow that single phase work to be done. We are taking that through a number of different gateways to give us a schedule of options before we can confirm that work is heading in a new build option.'

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