Boris Johnson finally declared HS2 will go ahead today – despite Tory fury over the spiralling £100billion cost.
The Prime Minister confirmed the move in a statement to the House of Commons after it was rubber-stamped at Cabinet this morning.
He said poor infrastructure had been ‘holding the country back’ for too long, and the government will act to shorten commutes and encourage investment.
He painted the controversial HS2 scheme – which has been in development for well over a decade – as part of his plan to ‘level up’ the UK, with a wider package of improvements spread wealth beyond London.
Mr Johnson said Britain could ‘try to get by with the existing routes from North to South’ but it was better to ‘have the guts to take a decision’.
‘None of this makes any sense without HS2,’ he told MPs. ‘If we start now services could be running by the end of the decade.’
He added: ‘Yes it is ambitious. But ambition is what we have lacked for far too long.’
However, the premier faced a rough ride from his own MPs, who are deeply divided over whether HS2 should happen.
Backbencher Andrew Bridgen warned that the scheme will become an ‘albatross’ around the neck of the government.
In a bid to sweeten the pill, Mr Johnson pledged to ‘interrogate’ the costs and a minister will be dedicated to overseeing the scheme.
He also suggested that Old Oak Common, one of the hub HS2 stations planned for near Willesden, could be named after Baroness Thatcher.
Work could now begin almost immediately on Phase 1 between London and Birmingham, with a review of how to extend the route further north to Manchester and Leeds.
Mr Johnson stressed that the whole project will go ahead. But the decision to hold a further review of the northern section will raise eyebrows, given the PM’s election pledge to improve infrastructure to the North.
Sources have pointed out even Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham is now urging ministers to prioritise a new line linking Liverpool to Manchester and Leeds ahead of the northern arm of HS2.
Supporters of the project say it can cut journey times from Birmingham to London from one hour 21 minutes to just 52 minutes.
The second phase should reduce Manchester-London trips to an hour and seven minutes.
Conservative MPs in seats along the route south of Birmingham are among those who are angry over HS2’s cost and impact on the environment.
Mr Bridgen said: ‘HS2 is unloved, unwanted and has been grossly mismanaged. It very adversely affects my constituents.
‘Does the Prime Minister appreciate my and my constituents’ concerns that this could well be an albatross around this government and the country’s neck moving forward and doesn’t it set the bar very low for the future delivery of infrastructure projects on time and on budget by all future governments?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Every great infrastructure project is opposed by the people at this stage. The M25… the Treasury was against the M25, I seem to remember delivering the Olympics and obviously Cross Rail, the Treasury tried to get rid of Cross Rail.
‘Every single infrastructure project is opposed at this critical moment.
‘We have got to have the guts, the foresight to drive it through.’
Veteran Tory Sir Bill Cash said his constituents in Staffordshire would be ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the decision.
Fellow Tory MPs Michael Fabricant said he was ‘less than enthusiastic about the route of HS2 which neither connects with Eurostar nor with Birmingham New Street or indeed with St Pancras’.
He added: ‘Will Mr Johnson agree with me that it is very, very important that now HS2 is going ahead that we also compensate well those people in my constituency (Lichfield) and his who will be affected by HS2?’
Mr Johnson said: ‘The short answer to that is of course.’
Former transport select committee chair Lilian Greenwood demanded assurances that phase two of the project will not be ‘delayed further or downgraded to cut costs’.
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Of course we are committed to phase 2B but I think she would appreciate that now, given what’s happened in the past 10 years with phase 1, it is vital that we use this inflection point to make sure the taxpayer gets maximum value as we proceed.’
In an impassioned defence of the rail scheme, the PM pointed out that it was not universally popular in his own Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency.
But he said: ‘Delivering better, faster and more reliable transport connections is the way to close the opportunity gap across this country…
‘Dramatic improvements to local transport and the decision to proceed with HS2 will shift this country’s centre of gravity away from the capital and transform connectivity between our towns and cities.’
Tory benches erupted into shouts of ‘No’ when Mr Johnson was asked if he agreed that HS2 should go ahead during Prime Minister’s Questions last month.
Mr Johnson’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, was said to be in favour of scrapping the scheme.
But he lost the internal battle, with Chancellor Sajid Javid and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps among those coming out in support.
HS2 Ltd – the Government-owned company responsible for developing and building the railway – says it will boost capacity and cut journey times.
High-speed trains will run beyond the new lines on existing tracks as far as Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Former HS2 Ltd chairman Douglas Oakervee was commissioned by the Government in August 2019 to lead a review into whether or not the programme should be scrapped amid rising costs and delays.
The widely-leaked review was published today, finding that HS2 could cost up to £106billion, but concluding that ‘on balance’ it should continue.
HS2’s original budget was £32.7billion at 2011 prices.
It was due to open in December 2026, but HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook said last year it would be ‘prudent to plan for an opening between 2028 and 2031’.
Last month, Whitehall’s spending watchdog said the scheme is over budget and behind schedule because its complexity and risks were under-estimated.
The National Audit Office warned that it is impossible to ‘estimate with certainty’ what the final cost could be.
But review author Doug Oakervee said today: ‘I am proud of the work that the Review Panel has carried out.
‘The Review’s Report is a comprehensive appraisal of a challenging project. I believe the recommendations help offer it a way forward, a means of increasing scrutiny and oversight, protecting the interests of passengers and taxpayers, and rebuilding confidence in an important piece of critical national infrastructure which will do much to rebalance the economy.
‘I am delighted that a decision on the project has been made, and it is now the job of the government to take this ambitious project forward.’
In a bid to head off criticism that the £100billion rail line will bring no benefit to many areas, Downing Street also unveiled plans for a major boost to bus services in every region of the country.
Sources said the £5billion investment would lead to more services, cheaper and simpler fares and greener vehicles.
However, Mr Johnson risked claims of a new war on the motorist by suggesting hundreds of miles of roads could be dug up to create segregated bus and cycle lanes.
He also backed proposals for dozens of ‘Mini-Holland’ schemes where vehicle use is restricted in towns and suburbs to encourage walking and cycling.
The package represents a massive rise in local transport spending, which currently totals about £2.7billion a year. Mr Johnson is also expected to announce a series of road schemes such as ring roads and works to improve bottlenecks.
HS2 has been the subject of years of intensive lobbying from politicians and opposition groups.
Several environmental organisations claim building it will cause huge damage to natural habitats, including dozens of ancient woodlands.
Communities living on or near the route have expressed anger at the impact on their lives, while many people have said the project is simply too expensive and the money would be better spent elsewhere.