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Higgins Report on HS2 cost savings could be a "turning point" for major UK project, says expert

A report on how to cut the costs of the proposed new UK high speed rail line, due to be published on Monday, could prove to be a "turning point" for public and political support for the project, an expert has said.

Sir David Higgins took over as chair of HS2 Ltd, the company set up to deliver High Speed 2 (HS2), in January and was commissioned by the prime minister to report on how the project could be delivered earlier and at a lower cost. The report is also expected to make recommendations to boost political support for the project, according to infrastructure planning expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

"There is a real sense that this much-awaited report will prove to be a turning point for this hugely important project," he said. "It is Europe's biggest infrastructure project but has received a mixed reception so far with politicians, businesses, landowners, local authorities, community groups and the public as a whole."

"I would expect the report to address many of the controversial issues. For example, the current plans for Euston station are vigorously opposed by Camden Council and many residents and businesses in the area. Sir David is expected to suggest a more radical solution for Euston with a significant element of the cost paid for by commercial development over and around the station, similar to what has happened at nearby King's Cross station. The belief is that this will be more acceptable to Camden Council," he said.

"In addition, Sir David will be recommending changes which are intended to shore up the sometimes shaky cross-party support for the project, particularly to bring forward aspects of Phase 2 and to show generally that costs are firmly under control," he said.

Under current plans, HS2 would be built in two stages. The initial London to Birmingham section of the line is currently scheduled for completion in 2026, while a proposed second phase connecting the line to Manchester, Leeds and Heathrow Airport would follow by 2033. At the end of last year, the House of Commons Transport Committee recommended that the case for constructing both stages of the route at the same time should be re-examined, so that the possible regional economic benefits of the project outlined in a report by KPMG last year could be delivered sooner.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has recently conceded that the legislation that will act as the 'planning application' for the first phase of the project would not be finalised before the end of the current Parliament in 2015. The second phase of the project will require separate planning, consultation and legislation. The High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill will take the form of a 'hybrid' bill, containing elements of both a public and private bill, and its parliamentary passage would be the subject of intense scrutiny, according to Owen.

"We will have to await the government's response to the Higgins report but even assuming that it accepts Sir David's recommendations, many issues in contention will surely remain and so I am expecting a long passage for the Hybrid Bill," he said. "Many of those whose private interests are directly and specially affected, such as the proposed compulsory purchase, will want to have their say by petitioning against the bill on matters of detail and then presenting their cases to Commons and Lords committees. Ultimately it will be for those committees to strike the right balance between the private interests affected and the overall public interest in HS2."

"This will all take some time in Parliament. It was always going to. Any changes to the project that the government makes as a result of this report could well add to the time required for the bill to pass through. So a particular question the government will, I am sure, be considering is whether aspects of HS2 can be accelerated now, so that construction can start on them early without waiting for the bill to pass through Parliament some time in, I predict, 2016," he said.

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