Hitting the buffers or on the right track? Decisions to be made on HS2
Is HS2 a white elephant, the budget of which is soaring out of control or vital for economic prosperity in the West Midlands? Despite £7.4bn already spent, the future of HS2 is far from certain. Now, Boris Johnson’s new government has promised a review into the entire project which could very well mean its demise, if Mr Johnson’s previous less than positive comments are anything to go by. The review is scheduled to report on its findings by the end of the year.
What would this mean for the West Midlands? Certainly, the Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, a confidant of former Prime Minister David Cameron, has been most vociferous in his support for HS2 throughout his time in office. Mr Street has said the project is “vital” for the region and was “already creating jobs and building new homes”. Mr Street will be hoping that he can use his position on the HS2 review panel to help steer other members towards a positive decision on the project that would save around half an hour on journey times from London to the second city.
It is not just improved journey times that HS2 is being sold on the basis on, however. For example, in Solihull, HS2 is a key element of the borough council’s emerging Local Plan with green belt release and large-scale housing projects proposed on the basis of HS2 being completed. If the project were to be scrapped, it would mean the wholesale redrafting of planning policy on councils throughout the West Midlands. The Leader of Solihull Borough Council has been clear, “HS2 has a pivotal role in the economic future of the region and [...] Solihull”.
If the review did not provide enough uncertainty, there is the very real possibility of a general election as early as next month due to the ongoing Brexit deadlock. In such a scenario HS2 could very well find itself on a different track if the Conservatives were to lose power. Predicting the electoral arithmetic of a post-election parliament is a risky and uncertain business, but one possible scenario is that Labour could find themselves in power in one way or another. The party has been supportive of HS2 in recent years, with the 2017 election manifesto pledging that the project would be completed, and support from Labour council leaders and Metro Mayors throughout the Midlands and the north. Moreover, Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald MP has said that HS2 is critical in delivering future rail capacity, the construction of which should be aligned with “much needed upgrades to railways in the Midlands”. Whatever the outcome of the review or of a general election, it is certainly foreseeable to see either the scrapping of HS2 or its continuation being equally as controversial. We will watch as the next few months unfold with great interest.