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HS2 is an ambitious project to build a high-speed rail line from London to Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham. The project was officially given the go-ahead by the Prime Minister in 2020.

It is being delivered in three phases. Parliamentary approval for phases 1 and 2a have already been given through the Hybrid Bill process for the High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Act 2017 (phase 1) and the High Speed Rail (West Midlands to Crewe) Act 2021 (phase 2a). However, there is some uncertainty over the final phase (phase 2b) of the project, which would complete the full ‘Y’ network – comprised of an Eastern leg (from the West Midlands to Leeds) and a Western leg (from Crewe to Manchester).

This briefing provides an overview of the project’s progress and some of the key issues and arguments for and against HS2.

Why build HS2?

The case to have a high-speed railway running through the centre of Britain was first formally made by the Labour Government in 2010. At the heart of the strategic case for HS2 is the desire to address capacity constraints on the north-south rail links in England. Proponents of the project also say it will improve transport times, create jobs and help the country’s economy. The Government also sees this investment in HS2 – and wider transport investment – as an opportunity to driver growth in regional economies and create opportunities for regeneration.

How much will HS2 cost?

The Government will directly fund HS2. Since the scheme was first proposed, forecast costs have grown. The most recent cost estimate for completing the full HS2 network is £72bn to £98bn. The initial proposed cost estimate was £37.5bn.This has led some to question whether HS2 provides value for money.

The latest cost estimates place a benefit-cost ratio for the full Y-shaped network of between 1.3 and 1.5, which represents ‘low-medium’ value for money. Earlier assessments placed a higher benefit-cost ratio on the project. The relatively low value return on investment from HS2 has led some to question whether the project should go ahead.

The Government maintains no other options would deliver the step change in capacity and connectivity, while supporting the Government’s levelling up agenda.

What is the environmental impact of HS2?

Advocates for HS2 say the line will provide a cleaner and greener way to travel, but critics argue the carbon savings would be minimal and that there are less environmentally damaging, cheaper alternatives. Further, critics of HS2 have raised concerns over potential damage that construction of the line will cause to ancient woodlands.

What are the community impacts?

In some areas, houses may have to be demolished to make way for construction of HS2. The Government has been buying properties from people in areas which are affected. There also a number of schemes available to compensate home-, property- and land-owners affected by HS2. The schemes available to are based on how close land or property is to the line, and how the property is being affected.

What happens next?

The Government has said it will publish an Integrated Rail Plan which will set out how projects, including HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, can be connected strategically. The Plan was originally due to be published by December 2020. To inform the development of its Integrated Rail Plan, the Government commissioned the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to assess rail needs in the Midlands and the North of England,

The NICs final report was published on 15 December 2020. Recommendations made in this report, alongside other speculation, have prompted concerns that the Eastern leg of phase 2b may be scrapped. The Transport Secretary has dismissed rumours that the eastern leg would be cancelled, such speculation has continued apace.

The 2021 Queens Speech included proposals for a High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill, but no mention of the Eastern leg from the West Midlands to Leeds.

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