The High Speed 2 rail link will be at risk if it does not receive stronger backing from the very top politicians in the government, the chairman of HS1 has warned.
In an exclusive interview with Construction News, Rob Holden, also the former chief executive of Crossrail, said the £32 billion HS2 scheme needed sustained high-profile support from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or the deputy Prime Minister.
He also expressed concern that if Philip Hammond was moved from his job as transport secretary - as he was just hours after the interview, “the support for HS2 goes with him”.
He told CN that deputy Prime Ministers Michael Heseltine and John Prescott had been “hugely important” to ensuring the Channel Tunnel Rail Link HS1 went ahead.
Mr Holden was chief executive of London and Continental Railways at the time of HS1, and is widely credited with ensuring the project was delivered on time and to budget.
Mr Holden said: “Without people like that who are constantly putting the project in the public eye and doing what’s necessary behind the scenes to ensure the funding is provided, it’s extremely difficult.
“It’s my personal view that while the Prime Minister has lent his support to this project, he’s done it in quite a low-profile way.”
Mr Hammond was moved from the Department for Transport on Friday to replace Liam Fox as defence secretary after he resigned.
Conservative MP for Putney Justine Greening was announced as Mr Hammond’s replacement. She moves from the Treasury, where she was economic secretary.
Mr Holden said Ms Greening’s Treasury background was good news, but the fact that she is seen as a “rising star” could mean she does not retain the transport brief for long.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was better placed to back HS2 in the long term, because secretaries of state are only likely to stay for one or two years, he said. “I think there’s a risk it gets kicked into the long grass.”
He warned: “I think it would be wrong to do so, because we do need additional capacity going north out of London.”
A consultation on the first stage of HS2, between London and the West Midlands, closed in July.
A decision from the government over whether the scheme should go ahead is expected in December.
As transport secretary, Mr Hammond had pushed ahead with the procurement process for early contracts, stressing that it would take time and could be aborted if necessary.
The first contract notice, for a £350m engineering consultancy contract was issued last week.
HS2 supporters say the scheme as a whole could boost the economy and address the UK’s insufficient transport infrastructure, linking London, north England and Scotland, boosting reliability, travel times and freight links across the UK, while addressing the problem of full capacity on the West Coast Main Line.
David Cameron has already stated that government policy is to “press ahead with HS2”.
But Mr Holden said the House of Commons debate on Thursday last week suggested there was significant cross-party opposition, adding that unhappy Tory MPs in and around the Chilterns - and particularly the possibility of Welsh secretary and Buckinghamshire MP Cheryl Gillan leaving the Cabinet over the issue - present a difficult predicament for the Prime Minister.
Mr Holden said if decisive action was not taken on major projects, such as HS2, “it will take too long to deliver and then it’ll be too late” for the UK to compete in the international market.
Mr Holden’s views on HS2 were echoed by others in the infrastructure industry.
Civil Engineering Contractors Association director of external affairs Alasdair Reisner said: “If the consultation does deliver a robust case for proceeding with HS2, it’s essential that it does not then fall foul of musical chairs in Whitehall.
From HS1 to HS2: Rob Holden’s top tips
Having a political heavyweight - Prime Minister, deputy Prime Minister or Chancellor - with ‘clout’ who will take ownership of the project to secure approval and funding;
A funding model in place to attract private investment from capital markets, such as, in the case of HS1, bonds guaranteed by government;
An approach to tackle property development, construction and operational risks, as well a strategy to deal with the interface risk associated with linking up different elements of a complex project - and appreciating that some risks are only capable of being taken by government;
Raising funding before construction begins, which in the HS1 case overcame a contractor risk premium that would have existed “for fear of you not being able to pay the bills”;
Make the time between deciding the UK needs something and starting a project a fraction of the time it currently takes;
Being realistic about passenger predictions;
Not commissioning railway stock at the same time as infrastructure.