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War of words over HS2 as expert claims costs 'out of control'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
An expert has called HS2 the 'wrong and expensive solution' to improving commuter journeys. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

A new war of words has broken out over Britain’s controversial new high-speed rail line after an expert claimed costs were spiralling “out of control.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson is under fresh pressure from all sides over HS2, with critics calling for it to be scrapped and supporters demanding the government end uncertainty by unequivocally backing the project.

The latest row erupted when Lord Berkeley, former deputy chair of a government-commissioned review of the giant infrastructure project, published his own heavily critical report on Sunday.

He called it the “wrong and expensive solution” to improving commuter journeys.

Money should be spent on more widely used services within regions rather than north-south lines, he argued, with existing lines in the north and the Midlands “some of the worst in the country.”

“Its stated aim of providing better North South links is just as likely to attract more jobs from the regions to London than the other way round,” the ‘dissenting report’ said.

Berkeley also claimed parliament may never have approved the new line if it had known the full costs of the scheme. The transport expert warned costs could more than double from previous estimates to £107bn at current prices.

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But one government insider told the Financial Times the figures looked “made up on the high side,” and could prove just as wide of the mark as initial government underestimates.

A report last year by the chair of government-owned HS2 Ltd said costs would lie between £81bn and £88bn at current prices.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is under fresh pressure from all sides over HS2. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

A spokeswoman for the Department for Transport sought to play down the significance of Berkeley’s figures, telling Yahoo Finance UK his report “represents his personal view.”

She said the government had commissioned its review, led by former HS2 and Crossrail chair Douglas Oakervee, to advise on whether HS2 should go ahead, with an independent panel to represent diverse views.

But the government now faces further pressure from supporters of the project, including from its own benches in parliament.

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Andrew Percy, a Conservative MP and former northern powerhouse minister, called for an urgent decision “as soon as possible” to provide certainty for commuters and firms in northern England.

Sir Richard Leese, Manchester council leader and a spokesman for the pro-HS2 Connecting Britain campaign group, urged the government to commit fully to both HS2 and better connections across the north.

“After decades of under investment in strategic rail infrastructure, this is a once-in-a-generation chance to transform capacity and connectivity and level-up communities across the north, and beyond,” he said.

He took a swipe at Berkeley himself, adding: “We don’t much appreciate being told by a peer, who divides his time between London and Cornwall, what the north wants.”

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Tim Woods, northern powerhouse rail director at Transport for the North, said he was “concerned” about the idea the north did not need HS2.

“The North has Victorian infrastructure, in many places either reaching or at capacity. It simply won’t be able to keep pace with growing passenger numbers, meaning productivity will be stunted if we don’t act,” he said.

A spokeswoman for HS2 Limited said it awaited the publication of the official Oakervee review, and had been co-operating with its team.

“Investment in a state-of-the-art high speed line is critical for the UK’s low-carbon transport future, will provide much needed rail capacity up and down the country, and is integral to rail projects in the north and Midlands which will help rebalance the UK economy,” she told Yahoo Finance UK.