Ask the general public about HS2 and one of the recurring themes that emerges is confusion.
Many people are unclear on the benefits the project will bring, angry over the lack of information while also concerned as taxpayers that they may have to fork out more for the scheme, currently budgeted at £55.7bn.
There have been increasing reports in recent weeks of rising costs on phase one – reports that were put to HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston during his appearance at the CN Summit last week.
While he conceded that the project was currently facing a “gap” between its costs and its budget, Mr Thurston was adamant it was a gap that could be closed.
Nevertheless, the CEO also emphasised that the government would not be handing out any more money for HS2 – cost gap or no cost gap.
Speaking exclusively to CN after his Summit session, Mr Thurston declared that there would be “no more money” from government, and that the client was in talks with its phase one civils contractors to reduce costs by spring next year.
But if the cost gap is not completely closed, where would any additional funding come from?
Against the backdrop of Philip Hammond abolishing PFI in the Budget, Mr Thurston said an “important piece of work” for 2019 would be investigating different funding options for phase two.
However, he said it “would not be appropriate” to disclose the exact scale of the current phase one cost gap.
Following recent reports, there also continues to be uncertainty over whether the line remains on course to be delivered to programme and within its overall budget.
If HS2 is not careful, this lack of clarity will not only foster a negative reputation among the wider public but among contractors as well.
On reducing the cost gap, Mr Thurston implored the sector “to come together as an industry to make HS2 affordable”.
If it is now solely on the industry’s shoulders to make HS2 possible in the absence of any public funding increase, the pressure on contractors to deliver it on budget looks set to ramp up significantly.
Equally, there is a question over whether the phase one cost-cutting talks now taking place with HS2 could erode contractors’ margins.
Until there is more transparency on the current state of the scheme, HS2’s relationship with the wider supply chain may suffer, leaving it unable to bring in sufficient specialists and skilled workers.
It’s not only the taxpayer who has a right to know how much it will cost and how long it will take to deliver HS2; construction firms need to know exactly what they’re getting into.