Ministers accused of ‘lukewarm’ commitment on use of British steel in HS2

An image of the proposed HS2 route.
An image of the proposed HS2 route.
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The Government has been accused of failing to show support for the UK steel industry following its “lukewarm” commitment to using British suppliers for its flagship high speed rail project.

Responding to the recent announcement of the first wave of contracts for HS2, Labour has been pressing ministers for guarantees that at least 95 percent of steel used in the scheme will be British made.

The Government has since stated that it “expects” this target to be met in the rail part of the project, but it has stopped short of offering any further promises.

This has drawn heavy criticism from the shadow minister for steel, Gill Furniss, who described it as a sign of ministers’ “reluctance” to offer “much needed backing” to the country’s steel sector.

MPs have long been pushing the Government to commit to using British manufacturers on HS2, with Scunthorpe MP Nic Dakin raising the issue of steel in the Commons back in November.

Unions have also been applying pressure, with the TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady urging ministers to consider the “value” that sourcing domestically brings for communities and businesses across the country.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Sarah McCann-Bartlett, director general of the British Constructional Steelwork Association, stressed that the UK is home to “some of the best” bridge and station builders in the world, and their consumption of steel is expected to increase by 25 percent by 2019 as a result of HS2.

Peter Smith, managing director of the rail manufacturing arm at British Steel, told this paper his company has a proven track record on delivering “quality” products and expects to be “a key supplier” on the project.

Contractors involved in public sector projects have to abide by strict procurement rules when purchasing steel, taking into account factors like value for money, carbon footprint, and social and economic impacts. However, the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling offered assurances to MPs as early as last year that the UK’s current record of sourcing 95 percent of steel in rail from British suppliers would be maintained in the delivery of HS2.

Ms Furniss challenged the minister to repeat these assurances following the announcement of the phase one HS2 contractors. Submitting a written question, she called on the Secretary of State to “make it his policy to ensure that 95 per cent of steel used in the construction of the project” is British made.

Responding on Mr Grayling’s behalf, the rail minister Paul Maynard stated that the company set up to manage the project – HS2 Ltd – will ensure “a fair procurement process” that enables UK steel manufacturers to “compete on a level playing field”.

But on the 95 percent figure, he said only that “the Secretary of State has said that he expects to match the existing record” on rail.

Ms Furniss has dismissed this response as “further evidence of the Government’s lukewarm commitment to the UK Steel Industry”. She accused Mr Grayling of “backing away” from his previous claims, adding: “The Government’s response shows its reluctance to offer much needed backing to the steel sector which has faced a series of challenges in the last couple of years.”

A Government spokesman said: “HS2 will become the backbone of our national rail network, creating more seats for passengers, supporting growth and regeneration and helping us build an economy that works for all.”