THE Government has reaffirmed its absolute commitment to building a high-speed rail line linking London and the North and moved to summarily dismiss concerns the Treasury is trying to stall the £32 billion scheme.
Transport Minister Norman Baker told the Yorkshire Post “there are no delays” to the HS2 project, and that reports that the Treasury is dragging its heels have no grounding in truth.
The Government was criticised by Labour for not including an HS2 bill in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, amidst rumours it had been dropped at the 11th hour under pressure from Conservative backbenchers.
Then minutes were published of a meeting of HS2 Ltd - the company set up to advise Whitehall on the project - earlier this year in which concerns were raised about the speed at which the Treasury was signing off parts of the programme.
But a timetable published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in January made clear the HS2 Bill was never going to be put before Parliament before late 2013, while HS2 Ltd insists the scheme is now moving forward as planned.
Liberal Democrat Transport Minister Mr Baker was unequivocal yesterday that there is no question whatsoever of the scheme being delayed or cancelled.
“High Speed Rail is fully signed up to by both Coalition parties, by all departments,” he said.
“We are progressing according to the timetable we’ve set. We’re making good progress and we’re determined to make it happen.”
Asked about the reports of Treasury stalling, he added: “They’re not holding anything up - the Treasury has been very supportive. The whole Government is signed up to HS2 and it will happen.”
This week the Government received further support for its stance from an All Party Parliamentary Group on High Speed Rail, which concluded after a four-month investigation that the project is essential to prevent Britain’s railways becoming cripplingly overcrowded.
The cross-party group of MPs assessed a range of other options including packages of improvements to the existing rail network but found that only the construction of new high-speed lines could meet the capacity that will be required.
“All three major political parties seem to support a strategy of greater rebalancing of the economy, regeneration of the North, and moves to more sustainable forms of transport,” their report states. “Only a new line really provides the flexibility to do this.”
Greg Mulholland, the MP for Leeds North East anda member of the Parliamentary group, said yesterday the Government must now make good on its commitment to extend the new line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester as quickly as possible.
The current timescale suggests the line will begin operation between London and Birmingham in 2026, linking to Leeds and Manchester by 2032.
“This report is a further vindication of the need for the swift construction of a High Speed network, the benefits of which in terms of capacity, employment and investment for the future are substantial,” he said.
“MPs from all parties have been joined by private businesses and public transport authorities to once again make the case, not only for the now-confirmed first phase, but for the equally-important second phase, which will bring High Speed rail to Leeds.
“I will be continuing to urge the Secretary of State for Transport to not only guarantee the second phase of the project, and confirm that they will construct both legs simultaneously, but also that the construction takes no longer than the proposed maximum of six years following the completion of phase one.”