Transport Secretary: Government remains ‘committed’ to HS2

Transport Secretary Mark Harper has insisted the Government is “committed” to HS2.

He made the comment after Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove suggested capital investment for HS2 will be reviewed.

Mr Harper told Sky News: “The Government remains committed to delivering High Speed 2 on time and within budget.”

The Cabinet minister was pressed on the decision in November 2021 not to extend the high-speed railway from the East Midlands to Leeds.

He said: “We’re going back to our 2019 manifesto, looking at the commitments we made. We have got a commitment to make sure we can get high-speed trains to Leeds.

“What we’re doing in my department, and what I’ve been briefed on, is we’re looking at all of the options that are available to do that.

“I will be looking at all of the options to do that in light of the decisions we take in the Autumn Statement.”

The decision to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 was announced in the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan, which stated that “we will look at the most effective way to run HS2 trains to Leeds”.

Asked about the project on ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme, Mr Harper said: “I’ve been having briefing meetings in my first week in the job from my officials that focus on HS2, of course, we’re looking at how you can get efficiencies, how you can do things in a more efficient way… We’ll continue to focus on getting value for money for the taxpayer.”

Ahead of their autumn budget, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are said to be considering up to £50 billion of spending cuts and tax hikes to fill a gaping black hole in the nation’s finances.

Discussing the possible cuts on Times Radio’s Sunday Morning With Kate McCann And Adam Boulton, Mr Gove was asked about the possibility of HS2 being cut.

He said: “I am sure everything will be reviewed,” before adding: “I do think HS2 is a significant investment.”

In an update to Parliament last week, Mr Harper said HS2 Ltd is projecting around £1.9 billion of “net additional cost pressures” for Phase One between London and the West Midlands.

The total is partly due to additional design costs, lower-than-planned productivity and difficulties developing Euston station.

The target cost of Phase One is £40.3 billion at 2019 prices.

A budget of £44.6 billion is in place, including contingencies of £5.6 billion delegated to HS2 Ltd and £4.3 billion retained by the Government.

Giving evidence to the Commons’ Transport Select Committee on Wednesday, HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston said: “We’ve spent about £1.5 billion of the £5 billion contingency that we’ve got within the HS2 element of the contingency.”

He added: “Although we’re saying the target cost is under pressure, we’re confident at this stage that we’ll be within the overall funding envelope, which would include, in due course, drawing down all of the government contingency or some of the government contingency, but we’re not there yet.”

Mr Thurston told MPs “the world has changed beyond all recognition” since the target cost was set in early 2020.

He said: “We’ve left the EU, had a global pandemic, more recently the energy crisis, and we now find ourselves in a high inflation environment.

“So, frankly, if I was to say the number was still £40.3 billion and it wasn’t under pressure, I think that would be less credible than saying it’s under pressure.”

The Government’s latest cost estimate for Phase 2a, from the West Midlands to Crewe, is £5.2 billion-£7.2 billion at 2019 prices.

The budget for Phase 2b – which will see the high-speed railway extended from Crewe to Manchester and from the West Midlands to the East Midlands – has not been confirmed.

A budget of £55.7 billion for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015.

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of industry body Rail Partners, said: “The new Transport Secretary’s recommitment to HS2 is a welcome signal of confidence in the long-term role of rail as the spine of a low-carbon transport system and future green economy.

“Getting the detail right of wider rail reform and the integration of HS2 with the traditional network for both passenger and freight is key to securing the economic and environmental benefits rail can provide for the country as a whole.”