Leading figures in architecture and construction have backed the under-scrutiny High Speed 2 project, emphasising its importance to economies in the north of England
Last week prime minister Boris Johnson ordered a full review of the rail link, with a report expected to advise within weeks on whether to scale down or even scrap the controversial scheme.
Transport minister Charlotte Vere told the House of Lords last month that the government had already spent £7.4 billion on HS2, which will ultimately speed up journeys between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Vere refused to confirm or deny reports that HS2 chairman Allan Cook had written to the government putting the anticipated total cost of the project at £86 billion – some £30 billion higher than previously expected.
Johnson – who has reportedly said the scheme could come in above £100 billion – is under intense pressure from some Conservative MPs to intervene, and pledged a review when campaigning for the party leadership.
But Sadie Morgan (pictured), chair of HS2’s independent design panel as well as a national infrastructure commissioner and co-founder of Stirling Prize-winning dRMM, has led a chorus of high-level support for the rail link.
‘HS2 is a project with the potential to reduce the North-South divide and provide real growth opportunities for the northern cities – especially if combined with a commitment to the Northern Powerhouse Rail strategy,’ she said. ‘We must not lose sight of the benefits to the North and long-term improvements to the nation’s transport infrastructure.’
Rogers Stirk Harbour partner Andrew Tyley said boosting transport infrastructure was the most significant contribution a generation could make to its successors.
‘Our future is dependent on investing in infrastructure to create connections at this time of great division in this country,’ he said. ‘It is not the vision that is flawed – we have to overcome the inefficiencies that have led to this problem.’
Falconer Chester Hall director Alastair Shepherd said HS2 should be expanded as a project rather than shrunk or scrapped. The scheme as planned would have a ‘transformative effect’ on cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield he said, but should reach even more parts of the UK.
‘Having an office in Liverpool, it’s disappointing that a short spur from the West Coast Line isn’t being seriously considered,’ he said. ‘Better connections to cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Hull would have a massive impact on their respective economies, which are sometimes challenged by their geographic locations.’
He added: ‘Regardless of whether the project proceeds or not, the entire scope needs to be reviewed, from inception to implementation. As a country, there needs to be clear consensus from the outset to ensure large scale infrastructure projects work for the whole population and are more streamlined in their execution. East–west connections in the north of England should be one of the first priorities.’
Hiro Aso, who is famous for his work at King’s Cross station and also worked on the Leeds station masterplan ahead of HS2 while at Gensler, said the Leeds project had multiple dimensions and justifications, and was about ‘PS1’ or ‘proper speed 1’ as well as HS2.
Aso, who is now urban transport leader at Hassell, added that the industry could find comfort in the government’s decision to appoint a former HS2 chair to lead the review.
‘Doug Oakervee is someone who values infrastructure but can also scrutinise the project with deep experience, so I’m hoping the construction sector will find his findings positive,’ he said.
Another key figure in the birth of the project, former transport minister Andrew Adonis, was outspoken in his criticism of the review this week, branding it ‘stupid’.
He tweeted: ‘HS2 review is about as stupid as you can get and screws Birmingham and the North. Classic Johnson. It throws [the] project into flux and will cause big delays, loss of confidence and cost increases. HS2 will almost certainly continue afterwards in modified form. What a shambles.’
Adonis added: ‘Membership of the review is about evenly divided between supporters and opponents of HS2, who will now engage in a massive bun fight while the transport department runs for cover and HS2 Ltd is paralysed by indecision.
‘Designing an infrastructure project by committee is always bad, but redesigning by committee of contrarians is reckless and irresponsible.’
Tom Thackray, director of infrastructure at employer body the CBI, said the business message on HS2 was clear.
‘Back it, build it, benefit from it,’ he said. ‘The debate has gone round the houses too many times.
‘We firmly believe that committing to HS2 in full, once and for all, will spread the flow of investment across the Midlands, the North of England and into Scotland. The current poor connectivity in the North is a major obstacle to encouraging companies from growing in the region and is a barrier to inward investment.’
An AJ Twitter poll last week, showed 61 per cent favoured continuing with the project, with 39 per cent against.
Should the government continue with the HS2 high-speed rail line?— Architects’ Journal (@ArchitectsJrnal) August 21, 2019
Among the project’s critics is Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan, whose Chesham and Amersham constituency is on the proposed HS2 route.
Welcoming the review, she said: ‘First, the cost has risen astronomically. The latest estimate is in excess of £100 billion. The forecast is totally unrealistic, with much of the information being based on the situation 10 years ago, which has not been updated.
The scheme is based on the way we worked 10 years ago … the money can be spent better
‘Second, the scheme is also based on the way that we worked and travelled 10 years ago. I believe that the money can be spent better, benefiting the Midlands and the North, on practical improvements with proven benefits to rail passengers and residents, and on infrastructure like better broadband.
‘Third, this project is not environmentally friendly. Our emphasis now should be on protecting the environment, not destroying it or paying lip service – HS2 planted thousands of trees which subsequently died as they were not maintained after planting.’
A National Infrastructure Commission spokesperson said: ‘This review is an opportunity for the government to put the project on a more stable footing, and to work closely with businesses, communities and political leaders around the country to create a consensus about the best way to proceed.’
According to the BBC, ministers had discussed the possibility of HS2 going over budget and beyond schedule as early as 2016.