The £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme connecting the major cities of the North with high speed trains could be given priority over the southern sections of HS2 as part of a new review, the Government has revealed.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced today that the inquiry led by former HS2 Ltd chairman Douglas Oakervee will consider “whether and how” the controversial scheme connecting London and the North should proceed.
The review will consider a number of factors relating to HS2, including its benefits, impacts, affordability, efficiency, deliverability, scope and phasing. A final report will be sent to Mr Shapps - with oversight from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Sajid Javid - by the autumn.
Mr Oakervee will be assisted by peer Lord Berkeley, a former Chairman of the Rail Freight Group and long-term critic of the scheme. They will be supported by a panel of experts including John Cridland, the chairman of Transport for the North.
Among the terms of reference for the review is “whether and how the project could be reprioritised” and possible changes to Phase 2b connecting the Midlands with Leeds and Manchester. It will consider in particular “whether and, if so how, Northern Powerhouse Rail (including the common sections with HS2 Phase 2b) could be prioritised over delivering the southern sections of HS2”.
The development comes amid a dispute in the North over whether a £6bn underground station - rather than an above-ground station costing a fraction of the price - should be built in Manchester to accommodate HS2 and NPR trains.
The lack of agreement could mean the legislation to allow Phase 2b of HS2 to go ahead may not be laid in the Commons by 2020, a delay which could hold up the arrival of HS2 in the North.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said he welcomed the suggestion that east-west links could be prioritised over parts of HS2 but was concerned by the lack of an elected representative from the North on the review team.
He said: “While I am not opposed to looking at how we can ensure HS2 delivers value for money, people in the North will be wary of this review.
“It feels like we are at a critical moment when the government’s commitment to the North is about to be tested. People here are watching closely and will demand nothing less than the Northern Powerhouse that was promised.”
Kim Groves, Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said: “I am deeply disappointed that the Government is putting a question mark against the future of HS2 in the context of an ongoing gulf in transport investment between the North and London.
“HS2 is fundamental to rebalancing the economy and addressing the poor connections between cities in the North and Midlands which act as a significant brake on our economies.
"Given HS2’s potential to deliver 40,000 jobs directly, and a further 50,000 through productivity and regeneration benefits, to the Leeds City Region, we will be delivering a clear message that this project must be delivered in full.
“It is essential the review concludes quickly and removes the damaging uncertainty around this project which is central to our plans for future growth which benefits all our communities.”
Former Labour transport secretary Lord Adonis claimed the review was “about as stupid as you can get” as it “screws Birmingham and the North”.
Writing on Twitter, he added: “Classic Johnson. It throws project into flux and will cause big delays, loss of confidence and cost increases. But HS2 will almost certainly continue afterwards in modified form. What a shambles.”
Tom Thackray of the CBI business group said the case for HS2 was “well known” and added: “The business message on HS2 is clear-cut - back it, build it, benefit from it. The debate has gone round the houses too many times.”
But John O’Connell of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “We have long argued that HS2 is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and it’s good news that the government will conduct a full review.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The Prime Minister has been clear that transport infrastructure has the potential to drive economic growth, redistribute opportunity and support towns and cities across the UK, but that investments must be subject to continuous assessment of their costs and benefits.”