HS2 review an opportunity to provide long term certainty and stability

Out-Law News | 23 Aug 2019 | 1:31 pm | 3 min. read

The UK government should use its newly announced review into HS2, the national high speed rail project, to provide long term certainty and stability for the scheme and ensure it is properly integrated into local and regional transport networks and initiatives across the country, an infrastructure expert has said.

Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, was commenting after the government announced an independent review into the HS2 project to determine whether and if so how the project should proceed.

According to the terms of the reference published by the government, the review will consist of bringing together and testing "all the existing evidence", including in relation to the project's benefits and costs, to allow for "properly-informed decisions on the future of phases 1 and 2 of the project" to be taken by the government. Among other things, the review will look at the "direct cost of reprioritising, cancelling or de-scoping the project".

A final report from the review is due to be published this autumn.

"We welcome the review because assuming - as I very much hope - that the project proceeds afterwards, it should provide greater certainty going forward and put the project on a more stable footing," Owen said. "The review should be treated as an opportunity to put to bed once and for all the almost constant criticism and to set out a clear plan to progress the project in the form agreed after the review.  This would give all interested stakeholders much greater confidence and clarity, and establish the right environment in which contractors can be expected to deliver on time and on budget."

"While it is absolutely right that there is regular monitoring of costs to ensure that they do not spiral, it is to be hoped that this review's commitment to look at issues such as 'connectivity' and 'inclusive growth and regional rebalancing' will involve looking into the big benefits for areas in the Midlands and the north of England to be derived from integrating HS2 with local and regional transport networks and projects, not least Northern Powerhouse Rail. The benefits of integrating HS2 with regional and local transport networks and proposals, and resulting calls for £42bn of devolved transport spending, were set out in the National Infrastructure Assessment published by the National Infrastructure Commission last year," he said.

Owen said that the need to ensure HS2 was properly integrated with regional and local transport networks and proposals should be a central issue in the next comprehensive spending review, which has been postponed until 2020 having been due to take place this year.

Owen also doubted that there would be much scope to accelerate the northern parts of HS2, as mentioned in various reports about the review, without there being a major delay to the southern parts. The West Midlands to Leeds and Crewe to Manchester legs would not receive parliamentary approval until 2023 and the compulsory purchase of land powers for phase 1 – London to West Midlands – will expire in early 2022 unless they are renewed for the land that has yet to be acquired.

The HS2 review is to be led by Douglas Oakervee, the former non-executive chair of HS2 Ltd set up by government to deliver the HS2 project, with Lord Berkeley appointed as his deputy. A panel of eight advisers will also feed their thoughts into the review, focusing on "a specific area of interest".

Owen said that it was disappointing that the government had not published details of what areas of interest each panel member will focus on, and highlighted the need for expert advice to be sought on climate change and other environmental issues to help inform the review. It was also unclear, he noted, whether the panel members were appointed in purely an advisory capacity.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: "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. That’s why we are undertaking this independent and rigorous review of HS2. Douglas Oakervee and his expert panel will consider all the evidence available, and provide the department with clear advice on the future of the project."

Transport project lobby group Midlands Connect warned in a statement issued in response to the government's review announcement that the scrapping or de-scoping of HS2 "would be a disaster for the Midlands and the whole country".

"Although a review must rightly scrutinise the project’s deliverability, benefits and costs, we must not lose sight of the fact that HS2 will transform our transport network for the next century," said Midlands Connect director Maria Machancoses.