On the recommendation of the independent Oakervee review commissioned last year, the Prime Minister has given the go ahead to HS2, alongside major improvements to local transport networks up and down the country.
Ministers carefully considered the conclusions of the Oakervee review’s report before taking the decision to press ahead with HS2. The review was tasked with testing the existing evidence to produce an assessment that would allow the Government to make a fully informed decision about whether, or how, to proceed with the project. A panel of experts who represented a range of views supported the review to ensure an independent, thorough, and objective assessment of the project.
Amongst other things, the review considered the case for high speed rail, how a new high speed rail line could benefit the UK economy, the design and specification of the HS2 project, how it linked to the existing rail network and other transport projects, the costs of the project and the impact of cancelling all or part of the scheme. The review recommended proceeding with HS2, but with reformed scrutiny and oversight to protect the interest of passengers and taxpayers.
HS2 will play a role in the UK’s transition to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. When completed this scheme will offer some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger km; seven times less than passenger cars and 17 times less than domestic air travel in 2030. Adding to this HS2 is expected to help reduce the number of cars and lorries on the road and cut demand for domestic flights.
Estimates suggest that the total carbon emissions produced by both constructing and operating Phase One for 120 years would be the same as just one month of the UK's road network.
Of course, carbon emissions are not the only environmental concern with this project. The HS2 project will affect 43 of England’s ancient woodland sites during Phase One and 2a of HS2. On this the Government have given assurances that every effort will be taken to mitigate any loss or damage to woodland. The project will leave 80 per cent of the total area of these 43 sites untouched.
Further to this, HS2 is using a combination of approaches to compensate for the ancient woodlands lost during construction. This includes translocation of soil to other woodlands to improve their biodiversity, planting new woodland and restoring existing ancient woodland.
The HS2 Woodland Fund, overseen by the Forestry Commission, funds projects to support the creation, restoration, and enhancement of woodland on private land or in partnership with multiple landowners. Thus far, £1.6 million of the £5 million provided for the Fund for Phase One has gone towards supporting approximately 121 hectares of new native woodland creation, and the restoration of 174 hectares of plantations within ancient woodland sites.
A green corridor will be created alongside the railway which will involve the planting of seven million new trees and shrubs, including over 40 native species, along the Phase One route from London to the West Midlands.
A £70 million funding package has been made available to enhance community facilities, improve access to the countryside, and help improve road and cycle safety in towns and villages along the HS2 Phase One route.
Further concerns have been expressed about impact of coronavirus. Ministers have already considered whether it is right to proceed with construction work on Phase One of HS2 in light of the outbreak and have decided to commence work. Measures are in place to ensure compliance with the relevant guidance on construction work during the coronavirus outbreak. The Government has asked HS2 Ltd to work with its construction partners to ensure compliance with the guidance so that work is conducted in a way that is safe for workers and the public.
With regards to the costs of the HS2 project the Infrastructure and Projects Authority believes Phase One of HS2 can be delivered within its current projected cost of £35-£45 billion in today’s prices. Current costs will also be interrogated to identify where savings can be made.
Beyond HS2, the Government will still make a record £47.9 billion available for the rail network between 2019 and 2024. Indeed, this is the biggest investment in the railways since Victorian times. It will see commuter and mainline routes being upgraded, the introduction of thousands of new carriages and reliability improved. The Government has also committed £500 million to drive forward the process of reconnecting communities cut off from the network by the controversial Beeching cuts.