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New HS2 task force will provide "counterbalance" to project opposition, says expert

A new Government-backed high speed rail 'task force', chaired by Commercial Secretary Lord Deighton, will begin to provide a "fight back in defence" of the controversial project, an expert has said.

Infrastructure expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the group "may also help provide a counter-balance to the numbers being raised by the Mayor of London", which seemed to indicate a rise in costs.

The HS2 Growth Taskforce was set up last month to maximise the job creation potential and other economic benefits of the new national high speed rail link. New appointments to the group include Sir Howard Bernstein of Manchester City Council, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady, Professor Tony Venables of Oxford University and Lorraine Baldry, chair of London and Continental Railways.

"HS2 presents a massive opportunity to boost growth in regions across the UK and it's vital that we talk to business leaders, public sector organisations, local government and the public about how we maximise the benefit to the whole of the country," said Lord Deighton, whose Treasury appointment followed his role as chief executive of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).

"I am delighted to have such a skilled team working with me on the HS2 taskforce. They know the huge benefits large scale infrastructure projects can bring if they are done in the right way. I am confident that together we have the right blend of experience and expertise to make sure HS2 delivers its full potential in terms of jobs and growth," he said.

The initial London to Birmingham phase of the 250 miles per hour high speed rail link is scheduled for completion in 2026 and will cut journey times between the two cities to 45 minutes, according to the Government. A proposed second phase of the project envisages the construction of an onward 'y network' connecting the line to Manchester and Leeds, as well as a spur to Heathrow Airport, by 2033.

New legislation which will allow development to begin in 2017 will be introduced to Parliament later this year, following the announcement of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill as part of the Queen's Speech. If approved, the Bill would allow for quicker construction and design expenditure. It would also give Parliamentary authority for ecological surveys and other preparatory work to take place, and allow for compensation payments to property owners living along the route.

The project is expected to drive job creation according to the Government, with 70% of the resulting jobs expected to be based outside of London. According to independent analysis of the project's potential by research firm Greengauge 21, the project could be capable of generating up to 22,000 jobs in the next five years. This could increase to 50,000 jobs by the late 2020s, the firm has claimed.

Part of the role of the task force will be to ensure that HS2 creates as many jobs as possible, with a focus on the project's wider potential for contributing to the national skills and training agenda. The group will also use the lessons learned from London's Crossrail project, where contracts worth billions of pounds were awarded to companies based throughout the UK, to ensure that the project benefits as much of the UK as possible and not just the cities where stations will be built.

The task force will publish its interim findings later this year and submit a final report to the Government in early 2014. Its recommendations will be used to inform the HS2 work programme, with a particular focus on regional areas, the Government said.

"The task force represents a bit of a fight back in defence of the project, following some less than helpful comments from as diverse a range of political sources as Lords Mandelson, Prescott and Lawson and Alistair Darling," infrastructure law expert Jonathan Hart said.

"The paving bill has made it through Parliament, to provide a form of insurance policy for the survival of the hybrid bill if it runs out of parliamentary time. The next big challenge for HS2 is going to be on the floor of the Houses of Commons and Lords and in the Select Committees, where of course the writ of the great and the good on the task force does not run," he said.

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