Cancelling HS2 would send a terrible signal to the world, says high speed rail Minister Andrew Stephenson

Cancelling HS2 would send a "terrible signal" to the world about the UK's plans to recover from the pandemic and would have a "chilling impact" on investment, the Minister responsible for the scheme has warned.

High speed rail Minister Andrew Stephenson defended the controversial project linking London with the Midlands and North amid fears the Yorkshire leg of the scheme may not be delivered in full.

And giving evidence to the Commons Transport Committee, he said the fundamental case for the high speed rail scheme still stood despite the pandemic dramatically changing travel habits.

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Boris Johnson has committed to building HS2 in full. Pic: PABoris Johnson has committed to building HS2 in full. Pic: PA
Boris Johnson has committed to building HS2 in full. Pic: PA

One member of the committee, Greg Smith, a Conservative MP for Buckingham, said there was a petition circulating about HS2 and "gaining a lot of traction" and predicted there would be a Parliamentary debate about the viability of the scheme.

Asking what the cost would be to the country of stopping HS2, he said: "All opinion polling we've seen shows there to be a lot of hostility to this project."

Mr Stephenson said the most immediate impact of cancelling HS2 would be the loss of 13,000 jobs directly employed by HS2 and tens of thousands more in the supply chain.

And he said around 50 per cent of the estimated cost of phase one of the project, linking London with the West Midlands, had already been spent or contracted.

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He said: "So if we were to scrap this, it's not clear how much of it would be recoverable or whether these assets could be sold obviously there's been a significant amount of land bought.

"But I think at a time when we're going through global turmoil it would send a terrible signal out globally about the UK intending to build back better from COVID.

"If the first reaction to the pandemic is to cancel major infrastructure projects which have been talked about and committed to by successive governments now for more than a decade, if that was our reaction I think that would have a chilling impact on the construction sector in the UK and inward investment.

"So it's hard to quantify for the exact cost of stopping the programme now but it's certainly something I would very strongly advise against."

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The future of HS2 has been the subject of fierce debate due to its rising costs and environmental impact, though in February Boris Johnson committed to building the route in full following the findings of the Government's Oakervee review.

In recent weeks further fears have emerged over the Leeds leg of the scheme after a report from the National Infrastructure Commission recommended concentrating on regional links with the budget available for rail projects in the North and the Midlands.

Mr Stephenson was asked what modelling had been done about demand for the scheme due to the pandemic, during which levels of public transport use plummeted.

He said that the strategic case for HS2 was about "joining up the biggest cities in England and ultimately, reducing journey time to Scotland" and that "that case still holds sway".

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He said: "If you look around the world at parts of the world that have suffered pandemics in the past, you still see urbanisation in those countries, you still see the desire of people to move to and live in the cities.

"Who knows what the outcome of COVID 19 will be, it could change that global mega trend which we have now seen for a number of decades but I think it's far too early to say and personally, I can still see many particularly younger people wanting to live in our cities.

"Just in my lifetime we see the rebirth of many northern cities, places like Manchester and Leeds where hardly anyone used to live in a city centre, have now become really desirable places to live. I can't really see that changing because of Covid."