In Depth

Why HS2 construction is going ahead despite coronavirus lockdown

Government decision for contracted firms to begin work on rail line blasted as ‘tone-deaf’

The government has given formal approval for construction to begin on the controversial HS2 rail project, despite the UK remaining under lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson gave the green light to construction firms involved in phase one of the high-speed rail project, but insisted that those involved will need to continue to follow social distancing rules.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson approved the decision to build the rail link in February after a review into its cost, which has gone far above initial estimates. 

But for some, the decision to restart construction is poorly timed, with one think tank describing the move as “tone-deaf”.

What has the government said?

The government on Wednesday issued formal notification to the companies tasked with construction of the first phase of HS2, a high-speed rail link connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The first phase comprises the London to Birmingham section of the line.

The project, which was first approved almost a decade ago, has repeatedly come under fire for going considerably over budget – an initial estimate by the Department for Transport in 2010 predicted an overall spend of up to £17.4bn for the first phase. But an official review led by Doug Oakervee, the former HS2 Ltd chairman, published in February this year suggested that the line could ultimately cost up to £106 billion.

On Wednesday, the government gave the green light for companies to start breaking ground for the line, saying work could proceed in accordance with coronavirus safety guidelines despite the national lockdown.

The “notice to proceed” was confirmed by the Department for Transport early on Wednesday morning, allowing the project’s main civil works contractors to begin. Companies with HS2 contracts, according to The Guardian, include Skanska Construction UK, Costain, Sir Robert McAlpine, Eiffage Genie Civil, Kier, Balfour Beatty and Vinci. The contracts total £12bn.

HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson said: “We cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country.”

“This next step provides thousands of construction workers and businesses across the country with certainty at a time when they need it, and means that work can truly begin.”

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Has there been much support?

The Independent suggests that with the UK “expected to enter a deep recession” as a result of coronavirus and measures taken to combat it, the project “will provide work for the construction industry – which has been hit badly”.

“Governments often bring forward public works projects during recessions to provide employment and get money circulating in the economy,” the paper adds.

Mark Thurston, chief executive of HS2 Ltd, said: “In these difficult times, today’s announcement represents both an immediate boost to the construction industry – and the many millions of UK jobs that the industry supports – and an important investment in Britain’s future: levelling up the country, improving our transport network and changing the way we travel to help bring down carbon emissions and improve air quality for the next generation.

“HS2 has been over ten years in development and design. While the country’s focus is rightly on defeating Covid-19, the issuing of Notice to Proceed today ensures that our contractors and their supply chains have the confidence that they can commit to building HS2, generating thousands of skilled jobs across the country as we recover from the pandemic.”

What have critics said?

Not everyone is pleased with the timing of the announcement.

Deputy director of the Adam Smith Institute Matt Kilcoyne called the move “tone-deaf”, adding: “We've got an economic crisis that's going to cost taxpayers billions. We can't afford vanity projects like HS2. We need to get back onto a sustainable financial footing.”

In a less harsh rebuke, the trade union GMB admitted that HS2 was a “project of national importance” but insisted that the safety of workers and suppliers “must be the overriding priority”.

“Construction should be conditional on rigorous observation of social distancing, provision of personal protective equipment where required, individualised risk assessments for workers with underlying conditions, and mandatory dialogue between contractors of all levels and recognised unions,” said GMB national officer Eamon O'Hearn.

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