Overdue and over budget - but still a clear case for HS2

11 February 2020, 18:57 | Updated: 11 February 2020, 20:43

HS2 has acquired the stench of a failing project before a single sleeper has been laid.

But even at £106bn and rising Boris Johnson has decided that this is a project Britain cannot afford not to build.

Overdue, over budget and chronically mismanaged, a railway planned as a symbol of a gleaming new future has become synonymous with failure and the very old-fashioned British qualities of delay and dispute.

For its opponents, the UK's answer to the Bullet train provides plenty of ammunition.

The National Audit Office points out that its budgets have never been realistic or reliable, either at the original £30bn or the current worst-case £106bn, with the risks consistently underestimated or unacknowledged.

A series of whistleblowers and experts have argued persuasively that parliament was misled over the budget before it gave approval for phase one.

More importantly, hundreds of people living on the route have been appallingly treated.

HS2 has proved at best incompetent and at worst a bad-faith actor in negotiations, with property owners facing compulsory purchase orders frustrated by poor communication, unclear about process or insulted by the prices offered.

Even this latest "independent review" process is a sham.

Doug Oakervee, chairman of the review, is a former chairman of HS2 and therefore responsible for some of the mismanagement that the NAO and others have identified.

There are suggestions that Boris Johnson chose Oakervee to lead the review because he had previously advised on Crossrail - also heroically over budget - without realising his role on HS2.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has also broken his promise to put Oakervee before Parliament as soon as he had it.

"There's no point in concealing the facts on a project like this," he told Sky News in September as he commissioned a review he then sat on so long it was leaked six times.

None of which means that HS2 should not go ahead, but it has made it easier for successive governments to avoid actually starting the bulldozers.

David Cameron and Theresa May all gave the project a "green light" before queasiness induced by opposition from MPs in true blue affluent southern seats.

Appeasing many of them has helped drive up the cost, with half of the London to Birmingham stretch now underground or in deep cuttings to keep it out of sight of the Chiltern Hundreds.

Boris Johnson's problem is the opposite of his predecessors.

His thumping election victory makes him a prisoner of his majority and his rhetoric when it comes to HS2.

Moderate Tories on the line in the south like Jeremy Wright no longer hold such clout, and even loyalists like Michael Fabricant can be appeased - talked out of making a fuss perhaps by Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street, with whom the Lichfield MP shares a holiday home.

More clout now lies with new MPs in the Midlands and the North expecting Mr Johnson to make good on his pledge to "level up" and rebalance the economy.

He could not credibly make that and promise a golden age of infrastructure and then cancel the largest infrastructure project designed precisely for that purpose.

It helps that the Prime Minister is a fan of grands projets though his track-record for delivering them is almost as flawed as HS2's.

He inherited the London Olympic project, which was overseen on the ground by executives appointed by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, and in City Hall by his Mr Livingstone's chief advisor, retained for his expertise.

The Garden Bridge was a disastrous vanity project, a £50m folly left behind for Londoners to pay for, and his Boris Island alternative to Heathrow was a half-baked idea 60 years too late.

Only the Thames cable car was completed and paid on his watch, a £24m irrelevance that neither answered a pressing transport need nor tourist demand judging by low visitor numbers.

The argument for HS2 is at least clear, and becomes more so the further from London you get.

Speed is nice to have but more capacity is essential.

A new line to ease capacity on intercity routes will improve the travelling experience and, more critically, help enable some of the major home building programs required to address the housing crisis.

Seen from north to south the value is obvious.

Stand on the sidings at Toton, near Nottingham, site of a proposed East Midlands hub station that will be less than an hour from London and 30 minutes from Leeds and objections from the green benches at Westminster seem less persuasive.

Nobody wants a railway run through their back garden or their favourite woodland walk decimated, and nothing causes public support to haemorrhage faster than chronic mismanagement of public funds hastened by astronomical fees to consultants.

It remains to be seen if the administrative changes the PM announced will really reduce costs.

A new body, 'High Speed North,' will co-ordinate the north-eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse rail, and hopefully treat those in the path of both with more respect than HS2 has managed.

Removing the taint from the project will take time, and it will be decades before the full value and cost of HS2 is clear, but the uncertainty, at least, has gone.