HS2 is on its way but bid troubles and snap election could still derail project

Gwyn Topham
An artist’s impression of the proposed HS2 station at Euston; demolition works are under way near the station. Photograph: Grimshaw Architects/PA

‘Passengers awaiting the 2026 fast train to Birmingham: your service is on its way. Honest.” If this announcement has left the public sceptical after seven years of relaunches and debate, there are signs that HS2 is starting to carve its first marks on the landscape. Is anything now stopping the £55.7bn high-speed rail scheme from becoming physical reality?

Royal assent in February gave HS2 Ltd the full legal, financial and planning powers to build the first half of a railway that the government claims will transform travel between London, the Midlands and, eventually, the north of England, create 25,000 jobs and help rebalance the UK’s precarious economy. Yet controversy over contract awards, and now the calling of a snap election, has threatened more uncertainty and delay.

Last week, a Commons select committee was told that a whistleblower’s intervention had led to the overturning of a £170m HS2 contract award to CH2M, the engineering consultancy which has had executives seconded, then hired, to run HS2 Ltd itself. Rival bidder Mace had threatened legal action over conflicts within the bid team at CH2M, which was aided by HS2’s former chief of staff.

HS2’s chairman, Sir David Higgins, and the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, denied there was any advantage or wrongdoing, although new procedures to scrutinise bids are to be put in place. But the controversy shone an uncomfortable light on HS2, which is “fishing in a small pool”, as Grayling put it, of highly paid executives from engineering firms, with £8.6bn of major civil engineering deals about to be doled out.

Two miles north and a world away from Westminster, Brian Battershill, 71, is looking out of the fifth-floor Camden flat he has called home for more than 40 years. Orphaned and homeless as a teenager, he speaks warmly of the community and friendship he found in the Silverdale block north of Euston station.

“I was sitting here one evening, with this lovely view, thinking how lucky I was. Next morning, in the letter box, HS2 told me we’re demolishing your flat for high-speed rail. I was torn apart.”

The most concrete signs that HS2 is happening can be seen on the fringes of the London terminus: nine new blocks of flats, paid for by HS2, are taking shape to rehouse displaced residents, nearly all within 10 minutes’ walk of their old homes. But, points out Battershill, the construction is squeezed into the spaces between existing blocks, and even above school buildings. More building work will take place all around them: an estimated 800 HGVs could pass daily along the roads lining the estate.

Fading flowers tied in memorial to the lights of a crossing on the busy Hampstead Road outside, where a pedestrian was recently killed by a lorry, testify to the danger. And, Battershill says: “Babies born here will be breathing these toxic fumes and dust until adulthood.”

Across the road, the Victorian-era Temperance hospital has been partly demolished for an HS2 work site. Adjoining is St James Gardens, whose closure will remove another green space, including dozens of majestic London plane trees, some festooned with colourful scarves and sheets by protesters to highlight their fate.

“It’s a real shame to lose it,” says Paul Gibson, 47, who has walked his dog here for 13 years, “it’s a nice serene place.” Once a burial ground, the gardens contain the remains of an estimated 60,000 people – all to be exhumed and reinterred in the months ahead. Discussions continue with the Church of England over exactly where the bodies are to be buried, according to HS2.

Even the residents who escape rehousing will face enormous disruption because of the reconstruction of Euston – a project that may be prolonged because of Network Rail’s own uncertain ambitions for a station that could also incorporate the proposed Crossrail 2.

HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins: already on the defensive. Photograph: HS2/PA

Camden council says it has secured a package of more than 100 pledges and assurances on air quality, replacing open space, and construction noise, with hopes that more spoil can be removed by train to limit lorry numbers. But it admits: “Now it is a question of holding HS2 to account.”

Campaigners, meanwhile, are focusing the fight on Phase 2b, where HS2’s tracks extend beyond Birmingham and Crewe to Manchester and Leeds, via the East Midlands; legislation is two years behind schedule.

Their hope that the entire scheme could be dropped is not entirely extinguished: Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2, points to the coalition deliberations in 2010 over whether Crossrail should be scrapped, even after all legislation was passed. A new election means Theresa May is no longer wedded to her predecessor’s manifesto, while previous parliamentary champions have left the stage, and parties such as Ukip and the Greens actively oppose HS2. Gaines says: “We’ve got questions over the amount of commitment within May’s government, and we’ve heard that people in the Treasury aren’t very happy. I don’t think anyone’s expecting it to come in at £55bn.”

A critical report by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood in 2016, yet to be made public, could give leverage for a future U-turn, she believes, while the reality of construction could yet galvanise people.

As well as St James Gardens, dozens of mature trees will be felled in front of Euston – and the Woodland Trust has again raised concerns that the damage to ancient forests along the route is being underplayed by HS2. “I think the kind of people who will lie down in front of bulldozers will come out. Once that sort of damage starts happening, there will be people who haven’t noticed who will come into action.”

Preparatory works, including geological surveys, have also provided physical signs around the country: drilling machinery parked in peaceful fields in Staffordshire is a harbinger of the enormous construction site to come next year.

The first of 7m trees to screen the tracks and construction are being planted. HS2 has promised to create 650m hectares of woodland along the route, to replace the 250m which will be lost. Badgers, newts and other protected species are already feeling the long arm of HS2 lifting them to new habitats away from the tracks.

A year of detailed design work lies ahead before the major construction of bridges, tunnels, embankments and reshaping of the land between London and Birmingham begins. Seven packages of work contracts, all worth around £1bn each, will be awarded this summer.

A £2bn competition to build stations has opened, while the train contract competition launched this week, to design, build and maintain the first 60 HS2 trains, is worth £2.75bn – a prime target for manufacturers in this country, perhaps to maintain the future of the Bombardier factory in Derby or expand the scope of Hitachi’s assembly plant in County Durham. Grayling said this contract alone would create 300 jobs and “leave a legacy for this country, boosting skills, generating employment and strengthening the manufacturing supply chain”.

The money points to it happening – with deals in the air that make CH2M’s single aborted contract look puny. While the select committee wanted to assure itself of the probity of HS2’s procurement, the last set of questions from a northern MP, Graham Stringer, were telling. “What interests me, as a Manchester MP, isn’t the commercial details but whether it will delay stage 2b. Will it?”

The prize for the north, a completed high-speed railway to its major cities that will underpin politicians’ “powerhouse” aspirations, remains at least 16 years away. But the long, painful gestation is about to start.

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