Star comment: Is HS2 on the fast track to oblivion?

Ministers have finally admitted what most of us have known for years – the country simply can’t afford to build HS2.

Vast sections of the budget-busting line are set to be delayed, or should we say further delayed, bearing in mind the whole thing is already well behind schedule.

The reason, it seems, is that in the present economic climate the Treasury can’t find the cash needed to get the project finished. After Covid and with the economy still struggling to bounce back from a series of blows and high inflation, the estimated £100-150 billion needed simply isn’t there.

It is rather fitting that this should be announced in the week before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveils his Budget. After all, it was in his autumn statement last November when Mr Hunt reiterated the Government’s frequently aired claim that HS2 will be built in full.

We can be sure that ministers will be reeling off the same line this time, just with the acknowledgement that it might take 20 years longer than planned.

The delay leaves the Government facing a number of important questions. For starters, once any construction project is pushed back costs tend to go up, meaning a delay to HS2 with the intention of saving money is likely to be false economy.

The Government must also explain where this decision leaves its flagship levelling up policy, of which HS2 has always been considered a key component. And most importantly, while the political arguments go on, where does this leave the communities who have seen their land carved up?

In Staffordshire, entire fields have been turned into building sites. Ancient woodlands have been torn down and the natural habitats of bird and animal species destroyed. The public has a right to now whether these sites will ever be completed or restored, or if the plan is to simply leave them to rot for years.

The sad truth is that HS2 has become an albatross around the country’s neck. When the route was first put forward all those years ago, there were a few reasonable arguments in favour of its construction. Advocates spoke of reduced journey times, of freeing up capacity on other rail lines and the roads, and of greater connectivity up and down England’s spine.

As the years have rolled by and the bill has gone up, and up, most of those arguments have become redundant.

The rise in the number of people working from home since Covid has greatly reduced the burden on rail, while the ‘high speed’ part of HS2 is no longer accurate as projected journey times have increased greatly.

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