HS2 could be aban­doned as re­view launched

Panel of ex­perts to as­sess fu­ture of the rail project as MPS tell John­son drop­ping it will win votes

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - By Harry Yorke Po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent

HS2 could be aban­doned, the Govern­ment sug­gested yes­ter­day, as it launched an in­de­pen­dent re­view into the fu­ture of the £56bil­lion rail­way project. The re­view comes just days af­ter se­nior Down­ing Street aides dis­cussed moth­balling the project be­fore a po­ten­tial snap elec­tion.

HS2 could be scrapped, the Govern­ment sug­gested yes­ter­day, as it launched an in­de­pen­dent re­view into the fu­ture of the con­tro­ver­sial £56bil­lion rail­way project.

The re­view, which will con­sider whether the line should be scaled back or scrapped, comes just days af­ter se­nior Down­ing Street aides dis­cussed moth­balling the project be­fore a po­ten­tial snap elec­tion.

Last night, Con­ser­va­tive MPS wel­comed the an­nounce­ment and claimed that scrap­ping HS2 would hand Mr John­son a boost in key mar­ginal seats should he choose to go to the coun­try.

They in­cluded David Davis, the for­mer Brexit sec­re­tary, who said that “de­rail­ing this run­away dis­as­ter” would be “a vote win­ner in any po­ten­tial gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign”.

Writ­ing in The Daily Tele­graph to­day, Mr Davis claims HS2 is a “sin­gu­larly un­pop­u­lar pol­icy in con­stituen­cies across the UK” and that shelv­ing it would free up bil­lions of pounds for re­gional in­fra­struc­ture projects.

First pro­posed by the last Labour govern­ment in 2009, HS2 has long been op­posed by dozens of Con­ser­va­tive MPS and con­tin­ues to di­vide opin­ion among the pub­lic.

If com­pleted, the rail­way line would run through the con­stituen­cies of 26 sit­ting Tory MPS, in­clud­ing Uxbridge and South Ruis­lip – Mr John­son’s seat.

Last night, a for­mer Cabi­net min­is­ter said: “HS2 is a white ele­phant ... a Labour van­ity project. It runs through a lot of Tory seats. I imag­ine ev­ery­thing the Govern­ment does at the mo­ment will be cal­cu­lated ac­cord­ing to an im­mi­nent gen­eral elec­tion.

“There is a strong po­lit­i­cal case for scrap­ping it. It would cer­tainly help to send out a cou­ple of dozen Tory MPS who are able to say ‘we’ve de­liv­ered’.”

Do­minic Cum­mings, Mr John­son’s chief strate­gist, raised HS2 dur­ing a meet­ing with Govern­ment spe­cial ad­vis­ers last week. Ac­cord­ing to White­hall sources, Mr Cum­mings men­tioned the project on Fri­day dur­ing a dis­cus­sion on waste­ful poli­cies that could be scrapped be­fore a po­ten­tial elec­tion.

One in­sider told The Tele­graph that while they had orig­i­nally con­sid­ered his re­marks to be a “joke”, the launch of the re­view sug­gested No10 was tak­ing the prospect more se­ri­ously.

Mr John­son re­fused to com­mit to scrap­ping HS2 dur­ing the Tory lead­er­ship con­test, but has pre­vi­ously stated his op­po­si­tion to the scheme as mayor of Lon­don and as a back­bench MP.

In Jan­uary 2012, he said there was “no point spend­ing this much on some­thing which doesn’t work prop­erly”.

In Oc­to­ber 2018, shortly af­ter he re­signed as for­eign sec­re­tary, he told the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence that projects in the North of Eng­land “ought to take prece­dence over HS2”. He has also re­cently noted that the fi­nal cost of the project could be “north of £100bn” and last week ditched the of­fi­cial £56bn price tag in­sisted on by Theresa May’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Crit­ics of HS2 have been en­cour­aged by the ap­point­ment of Lord Berke­ley, one of the project’s fiercest crit­ics, as deputy chair­man of the re­view.

A Labour peer and rail­way ex­pert, Lord Berke­ley has re­peat­edly at­tacked HS2 Ltd, as well as chal­leng­ing the De­part­ment for Trans­port’s cost fig­ures.

He will work along­side Dou­glas Oak­ervee, the chair­man who pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied the same role at HS2 Ltd and was a close ally of Mr John­son dur­ing his time in City Hall.

They will be as­sisted by a panel of ex­perts, in­clud­ing lead­ing rail fig­ures,

‘There is a strong po­lit­i­cal case for scrap­ping it. It would send out Tory MPS able to say “we’ve de­liv­ered”’

who will ad­vise min­is­ters on “how and whether” HS2 should pro­ceed.

The re­view will con­sider the di­rect cost of “repri­ori­tis­ing, can­celling or de­scop­ing the project”, as well as whether the £56bil­lion es­ti­mated cost of the scheme is “re­al­is­tic”.

A fi­nal re­port will be sent to Grant Shapps, the Trans­port Sec­re­tary – with over­sight from Mr John­son and Sa­jid Javid, the Chan­cel­lor – by the au­tumn.

“The Prime Min­is­ter has been clear that trans­port in­fra­struc­ture has the po­ten­tial to drive eco­nomic growth, re­dis­tribute op­por­tu­nity and sup­port towns and cities across the UK, but that in­vest­ments must be sub­ject to con­tin­u­ous as­sess­ment of their costs and benefits,” Mr Shapps said.

“That’s why we are un­der­tak­ing this in­de­pen­dent and rig­or­ous re­view of HS2,” he added.

Con­cern has been mount­ing that HS2 can­not be built to its cur­rent spec­i­fi­ca­tion within the £56bil­lion bud­get. Al­lan Cook, the chair­man of HS2 Ltd, is be­lieved to have writ­ten to the De­part­ment for Trans­port warn­ing that the fi­nal bill could be as high as £85 bil­lion.

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