To suggest that HS2 has been a controversial project would be a massive understatement. The recent decision by the Government to scrap the northern leg of the project may have 'saved' the government money but many questions remain unanswered. Only an inquiry will allow lessons to be learned.
HS2 has never been universally loved. The reasons why the entire scheme was needed appeared confused and the communication from government veered between speed, capacity, and economic rebalancing. Without tunnelling it through tracts of the Chilterns, with all the associated costs, the initial idea may never have been agreed to within the Conservative government itself.
Costs of the project seemed to increase from very early on and that set in motion a series of reviews and revisions – Higgins, Cook, Oakervee plus Committees in the House of Commons and House of Lords amongst others. We saw measures implemented to cut costs on the scheme including a two-year delay to the Birmingham-Crewe leg announced in March 2023 and the earlier abandonment of the proposed Eastern leg.
The Conservative Party has moved on from HS2. The immediate publication of 'Network North' made that abundantly clear:
"HS2 traps enormous sums of money that could be far better spent elsewhere."
But that should not be the end. Unless we consider the issue of costs but also decision-making structures and near constant political involvement, despite HS2 Ltd being executive non-departmental public body, then it is doubtful we see another government sponsored project any time soon. The decision will do little to help confidence the UK's ability to deliver and run major projects. If we do not consider these issues there will be a question of whether the UK government can actually do big infrastructure projects? There is lots of important infrastructure being developed across energy, transport and other sectors. Some of that is led by public sector bodies so the expertise exists and projects are delivered on time and on budget so what went wrong with the HS2? How can similar mistakes be avoided.
There is also the not insubstantial issue of whistle-blowers and how they were treated. This has been explored by the media, not least by The Times,
The ramifications of the government's decision are also significant and it is not clear what, if any cost benefit analysis, was undertaken. What does the decision mean for investor confidence? What impact does it have on efforts to rebalance the economy? Will the benefits for the West Midlands be lessened? What does it mean for our climate change commitments?
Unless we can learn the lessons of HS2 then there is a danger of simply repeating the same mistakes in future. We need to reflect candidly about project management, governance, cost control, and engagement amongst other matters.
Rachel Reeves her speech to conference has promised that Labour "will commission an independent expert inquiry into HS2 to learn lessons for the future."
How this will be different from, for instance, the Oakervee review, is unclear as its potential scope. There is also the danger that a such an inquiry could be given a politically based terms of reference. That would not be right in this case.
What is required is something like the Covid inquiry. That is not the only way forward but a statutory inquiry is a way to secure all necessary papers and make requests of participants. But it should not be allowed to go on for so long.
It is not just the transport and advisory sectors that need resolution but communities along the line also remain unhappy. They may choose to seek their own redress but it is also important that all these matters are not just left hanging.
The story of HS2 is a cross party and cross government one. It has come to symbolise a failure to manage costs and expectations. Its cancellation north of Birmingham has disappointed many but surprised few. Unless we have an inquiry, the failures could easily happen again. This is something that is in all our interests to call for.