On 11 February the Prime Minister announced the Cabinet had “given high-speed rail the green signal,” and that his Government would complete HS2 “without further blow-outs on either cost or schedule.”  

Debates about the merits of HS2 have been ongoing since Labour and the Conservatives first put forward their ideas for a new high-speed rail network a decade ago.  

The Government’s decision to press ahead with the project is unlikely to end those debates, with passionate advocates and campaigners on both sides disputing the cost, benefits, viable alternatives, and environmental impacts of the scheme. 

This Insight provides context to the decision and explains the next steps, including the role of Parliament. 

What is HS2? 

HS2 is a project to build a high-speed rail line from London to Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham. It will potentially begin operation in 2028 and be completed by 2040. HS2 was supported by the Labour Government after 2009 and has had the support of the Conservatives in government since May 2010. 

HS2 is planned to be delivered in three phases which will require at least three separate ‘hybrid’ Bills

  • Phase 1 from London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street and Lichfield with intermediate stations in West London (at old Oak Common) and at Birmingham Airport. 
  • Phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe. 
  • Phase 2b comprises an eastern leg from the West Midlands to Leeds New Lane with intermediate stations in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. This is complemented with a western leg from Crewe to Manchester with an intermediate station at Manchester Airport. 

In total, the estimated cost of the scheme is £81-88 billion in 2019 prices (including rolling stock). 

What has the Prime Minister pledged? 

To take the project forward, the Prime Minister said he would:  

  • Appoint a full time HS2 Minister to oversee the project; 
  • Appoint a new ministerial oversight group to take strategic decisions about it; 
  • Change the way the Government-owned delivery company, HS2 Ltd., is managed; and 
  • Create new delivery arrangements for both the Euston terminus and Phase 2b of the wider project. 

Why did the Government give the go ahead? 

In summer 2019 Boris Johnson and the new Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps commissioned an independent review of HS2. It was to report in the autumn, chaired by HS2’s former non-executive chairman Doug Oakervee and deputised by Lord Tony Berkeley, a noted critic of HS2

The Prime Minister’s February 2020 decision was based on Oakervee’s report.  It recommended the scheme progressed in full but with an overhauled delivery structure and improved mechanisms to manage costs.  

The Prime Minister also pointed to a mixture of wider factors that weighed on his decision, particularly to deliver upgraded, integrated transport infrastructure across the Midlands and the North. He told the House of Commons that the “clinching case” for HS2 was: “a vast increase in capacity, with hundreds of thousands of extra seats, making it much easier for travellers to move up and down our long, narrow country. That means faster journey times.” 

The Prime Minister also said that before a Bill for Phase 2b is presented to Parliament, work is needed to “present an integrated plan for rail in the North [that will treat] HS2 north of Birmingham, Northern Powerhouse Rail and other local rail improvements as part of one integrated masterplan: high-speed north.” This would not be delivered by HS2 Ltd, but a new body.  

When will construction of Phase 1 of HS2 start? 

Preparation for Phase 1 (London to the West Midlands) is underway and multi-billion pound contracts have been awarded. However, the main works cannot proceed until the Secretary of State gives formal ‘Notice to Proceed’ (NTP). This is a process commonly used in construction contracts. It is a notification letter from the Transport Secretary to the companies who have won the construction contracts to allow them to begin works (‘spades in the ground,’ as it were).  

On 11 February Baroness Vere, the Transport Minister in the House of Lords, confirmed that the Government intends to publish a new ‘final’ business case for Phase 1. The NTP will be published alongside it. It is not yet clear when this will happen.  

Does Parliament get a say? 

The hybrid bills for each phase go through a particular parliamentary procedure. This includes a specially convened select committee that sits to hear public petitions about the scheme by those directly affected by its construction.  

Phase 1 to the West Midlands is contained in the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Act 2017, so there is nothing further for Parliament to vote on legislatively (other means of parliamentary scrutiny are available through backbench debates and select committee inquiries).   

The Bill for Phase 2a (from the West Midlands to Crewe) was going through the House of Lords when the 2019 General Election was called and is expected to be revived for the 2019-20 session. The Bill passed all its Commons stages in the 2017-19 Parliament.  The only opportunity for a further Commons vote on this Bill would be if the Lords made amendments that the Commons would need to consider and vote on (‘ping pong’). This would only be on those amendments, not the principle of the Bill. 

The Bill for Phase 2b (from the West Midlands to Leeds and from Crewe to Manchester) was due to be presented to Parliament by the end of 2020. This timetable has clearly slipped. It is now unclear when the Government will bring it forward, or even if it will still be a single Bill given the further work that will now be required to integrate the scheme at the planning stage with other rail projects across the North. 

Further reading

The Williams Review: The future of rail? House of Commons Library.

High Speed 2 (HS2) Phase 1, House of Commons Library.

High Speed 2 (HS2) Phase 2a, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Louise Butcher is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in transport.