It’s that time of year, again. Everyone is running around trying to work out what the chancellor is going to say in the Budget on their pet topic. But this year one topic alone will surely dominate the week – HS2.
Sir David Higgins set the scene today when we he published his recommendations on how improve the delivery of HS2.
Sir David’s big challenge was the political pressure to reduce the current £50.1bn estimated cost.
Remarkably, he has resisted that pressure, refusing to reduce the budget by even a penny. On phase 1 he has made no commitment to reduce the time to deliver the project either.
Instead he has laid down a challenge to the government and the country to embrace an even bigger vision, with better links between Manchester and Leeds, a new rail interchange hub at Crewe and wholesale redevelopment at Euston.
And he has passed back to government the problem of the impact on Camden of the proposed HS1-HS2 link.
Sir David’s report also represents a stepping stone to the conclusions of the HS2 Growth Task Force, which are expected shortly. The Task Force was set up last year to advise the government on how to use HS2 to drive the growth of our regional economic centres.
It is about winning hearts and minds by setting HS2 in the context of an overall economic aspiration for the country.
It is about finally confronting the north-south divide by investing as much in the Midlands and the North as in London – it’s about ‘minding the gap’ by looking to boost the economic growth of our major cities outside London.
It seems inconceivable that the chancellor will fail to at least refer to HS2 during a Budget speech that will talk about the related themes of boosting the economy, investing in regional industries and skills and increasing Britain’s international competitiveness.
It will be interesting to see whether he will commit now to programmes of wholesale regeneration in the areas around HS2’s major stations, projects which would create a raft of work across the country for the construction industry, release land for housing, and support business investment in what will be essentially economic development zones.
In many areas the chancellor may be inclined to keep his powder dry for the next election manifesto, but on HS2 his colours are already firmly nailed to the mast.
Getting the country ‘HS2-ready’ is both shrewd politics in the short term and a good visionary platform.
If only the government was as bold on the rest of our infrastructure vision, we would be in a really good place.
Richard Threlfall is head of infrastructure, building and construction at KPMG.