British ministers are preparing to reduce the eastern route of the HS2 – .

British ministers are preparing to reduce the eastern route of the HS2 – .

Britain’s most expensive infrastructure project – the HS2 high-speed railway between London and the north of England – is set to be drastically cut, as the Treasury tries to control government spending which has exploded during the Covid crisis.

The eastern part of HS2, connecting Birmingham to Leeds, is expected to be scaled down or put on hold, government officials citing the “astronomical cost” of the project. Estimated costs for the entire line have tripled to over £ 100 billion over the past decade.

Grant Shapps, secretary of transport, was told by the Treasury to keep the implementation of existing programs under control and to be ruthless in prioritizing new projects, with ministers worried that the final HS2 bill would rise sharply to unless the project is scaled down now. .

“Cutting off the eastern part of HS2 could save £ 40 billion, but to be fair the numbers are being pulled from the air at the moment,” said a senior government official briefed on the tense negotiations between Shapps and the Treasury.

The official added, “The Ministry of Transportation has been ordered to prioritize, keep its promises of efficiency and focus on what it already has on its plate. The delivery is not going well.

The initial business case for HS2 relied heavily on building the entire line – connecting London to Manchester and Leeds – a decade ago, when the price was just under £ 33bn.

The Treasury-Shapps dispute is the forerunner of a tense few months for the government, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak tries to curb borrowing as part of his fall spending review.

It also heralds a wider struggle between Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who needs money to carry out his “leveling” program in the north of England, and the Chancellor, who is struggling with a deficit of ‘around £ 300 billion.

Sunak has already significantly reduced Johnson’s demands for post-Covid ‘catch-up’ funding for schools and battles await us on issues such as funding the transition to a net zero carbon economy and healthcare and social.

Putting all or part of the eastern part of HS2 to sleep is met with fierce resistance from Tory MPs in the north of England, who fear it signals a weakening of Johnson’s resolve to help the region.

Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, said: “If you don’t level the North East and East Midlands via HS2, what are you going to do?

First designed under the Labor government of Gordon Brown and enthusiastically backed by former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, the HS2 is a flagship of the Johnson government’s upgrade plans.

The first phase from London to Birmingham is under construction and Shapps is expected to confirm in a delayed rail strategy, known as the Integrated Rail Plan, due to be released in the fall, that it will then be extended to Manchester.

Planning on the parts of HS2 north of Birmingham, known as phases 2a and 2b, is still at an early stage. Development work on the eastern section linking Birmingham to the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds, which falls entirely under phase 2b, has been halted. Government officials now expect it to be delayed indefinitely.

They said the Treasury was alarmed by rising costs on parts of the HS2 north route where planning is most advanced, including the section from Crewe to Manchester.

The Department of Transport insisted that no final decision had been made on the eastern part of the HS2. Ministers are looking for ways in which further rail improvements can alleviate an expected prolonged delay in its construction.

“The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including Phase 2b of HS2 and other transformation projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to provide reliable rail services including passengers in the North and Midlands. need and deserve, ”he added. DfT said.

A TransPennine Express train en route to Manchester. Ministers consider plans to improve connections on the road © James Grady / Alamy

Ministers are considering long delayed plans to improve rail links across the Pennines between Leeds and Manchester. Another option being considered is to build a much shorter eastward extension of HS2 to the East Midlands and upgrade existing lines.

Last December, the National Infrastructure Commission, an advisory body to the government, recommended delaying the eastern part in favor of improved regional rail links, which it said would be faster to build and increase economic growth by 20 percent. more than long distance rail services. .

The Treasury, which was forced to bail out the rail industry during the Covid pandemic, believes the ‘work from home’ revolution has further weakened the case for expensive new rail projects.

Lord Amyas Morse, former head of the National Audit Office, said of HS2: “It started as an inconsistent decision and it has also been inconsistent in its execution. “

Morse said if ministers had been told at the start of the last decade, when the project was finalized, that £ 100 billion would not have purchased a complete railway, it may never have been spear.

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, longtime critic of HS2, whose North West Leicestershire headquarters are on the East Leg route, said his constituents would welcome the removal of the line. There are plans to build an HS2 station near Nottingham at Toton, which is just outside the constituency of Bridgen.

But he said if the project was only put on hold indefinitely, it would create a planning plague along the way: “If it were put on the back burner permanently, it would leave a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. heads.


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