HS2: Chancellor Sajid Javid set to back project as PM orders cuts

30 January 2020, 05:43

The high-speed rail project has been controversial
The high-speed rail project has been controversial. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The controversial HS2 project is set to get a new backer on Thursday as Chancellor Sajid Javid throws his weight behind the high-speed rail line.

While the Times newspaper reports Boris Johnson will also back HS2 "defiance of Dominic Cummings" his top advisor.

The Chancellor will "broadly back" the high-speed line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

It is understood Mr Javid will give his backing to the rail project at a meeting with the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Thursday.

But the Transport Secretary has insisted that no decision will be made on Europe's biggest infrastructure project this week.

It has been estimated the scheme, which was allocated £56 billion in 2015, could cost up to £106 billion.

The Prime Minister told the Commons on Wednesday that a decision on the project would be made "very shortly."

He said: "I just want to reassure all of my honourable friends and everybody, whatever persuasion they may be about HS2 across this Chamber, that there will be an announcement and a decision very shortly."

Mr Johnson's Commons statement came just a week after Grant Shapps told LBC's Nick Ferrari a decision was "weeks rather than months away."

He is expected to announce within days that the project should go ahead but make significant cost-savings amid concerns that the final bill will exceed £100 billion.

Some £8 billion has already been spent on the scheme.

The meeting comes as Mr Javid has put pressure on Cabinet colleagues to identify where cuts of 5% could be made in their departmental budgets.

In a letter, co-signed by Mr Johnson, the Chancellor urged ministers to identify projects that could be abandoned ahead of his first Budget as Chancellor in March.

The intervention was seen at Westminster as a bid to find resources to fund Tory election promises on infrastructure, health and law and order.

Whitehall's spending watchdog said this month that HS2 is over budget and behind schedule because its complexity and risks were under-estimated.

The National Audit Office (NAO) warned that it is impossible to "estimate with certainty what the final cost could be".

Phase One between London and Birmingham was due to open in 2026, but full services are now forecast to start between 2031 and 2036.

Business chiefs in the north of England have argued that pushing forward with HS2 is key to boosting transport links across the region and providing increased capacity on the overcrowded rail network.

Construction firms warn that scrapping it would cause major damage to the industry.

However, opponents insist HS2 is too expensive and the money would be better spent elsewhere, while several environmental groups say it would cause huge damage to natural habitats and ancient woodland.