‘Preparing for all possible outcomes’ of HS2 review

Council chiefs are planning for “all possible scenarios” as the Government prepares to make a decision on the future of HS2, and the National Audit Office said “significant risks” remained in the project.
It comes as Congleton MP Fiona Bruce urged the Government to “be brave” and scrap development of the high-speed train line following a leaked report which predicted the cost could be as high as £106bn.     
HS2 will connect a new hub station in Crewe to London, Birmingham and Manchester if the line is built in full as originally planned — and Cheshire East Council hopes it can be a catalyst for regeneration in the town.
But there is growing uncertainty over the project’s future after the National Audit Office found that HS2 was over budget and behind schedule because the department for transport and wider government had underestimated its complexity and risk.
“Significant challenges to completing the programme and delivering value for taxpayers and passengers remain,” said the report.
The Government’s latest estimate of the cost of HS2 is between £65bn and £88bn (2015 prices), between 17% and 58% over available funding.
However, a leaked draft of a review of the project by Doug Oakervee, HS2’s former chairman, has said the cost could rise to £106bn. 
Full services on the entire network are now forecast to start between 2036 and 2040, between three and seven years later than originally planned.
The National Audit Office’s report said that HS2 Ltd did not account for the level of uncertainty and risk in the programme when estimating the costs of phase one in April 2017, and had not adequately managed risks to taxpayer money.
The report said that phase 2a (West Midlands to Crewe) and phase 2b (Crewe to Manchester and West Midlands to Leeds) was already forecast to cost more than its available funding and take longer than expected.
HS2 Ltd’s current forecast for when passenger services would run on phase 2a is between 2030 and 2031, and for phase 2b between 2036 and 2040, three to seven years later than planned.
The Government estimates that costs for phase 2a could be £6.5bn (87% higher than the available funding) and phase 2b £41bn (63% higher than the available funding).
Frank Jordan, executive director of place at Cheshire East Council, told a scrutiny meeting last Monday that the local authority’s economic plans were not dependent on HS2 — but that the council must prepare for all possible outcomes from the review.
“Every week there is a different view as to what the HS2 review is going to conclude and what the Government’s position is on it,” he said.
“As a council, we can deal with facts — and when we get the position statement from the secretary of state, then we can respond.” 
HS2 lies at the heart of Cheshire East’s plans to transform Crewe, including a new station where up to seven high-speed trains an hour could stop, and new development taking place in the surrounding area.
But Mr Jordan told the Environment and Regeneration Overview and Scrutiny Committee that Cheshire East’s plans for economic growth did not rely on the Government giving the green light to HS2.
He said: “What HS2 would do is provide certainty around rail investment — particularly in Crewe — and it would therefore give us a timeline to introduce some pace into some of our plans.
“If HS2, for example, following the Oakervee review was completely cancelled — yes we would adjust some of our thinking and our plans.
“But the broad thinking for around the station, around Crewe and around other things in the borough would still continue.
“We are anticipating all possible scenarios from the Oakervee review.” 
Coun Ashley Farrell added: “We would all like the investment, but if HS2 is cancelled then we need a plan B for investment into the area.
“We still need a plan B to lobby government, to lobby MPs and say ‘this region needs investment in one form or another’.”
Cheshire East’s Cabinet is due to consider a report on HS2 preparations in March.
Mr Bruce has long opposed the high speed rail link.
She told the Chronicle this week: “The escalation of HS2’s estimated costs from an initial £34bn to now £106bn is completely unacceptable and I am pleased that new MPs are joining those of us who have said for years that HS2 should not go ahead.”
She added: “The Government should be brave enough to stop it now. Listening to my constituents, people here want better bus services, improved road surfaces, and regular, reliable, local trains; these should be transport funding priorities; they will benefit everyone, every day.”
Reporting: the Chronicle and local democracy reporter Stephen Topping.