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HS2 doubts as Tories query cost of controversial rail link

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrea Leadsom raise concerns at party conference in Birmingham

04 October, 2018 — By Richard Osley in Birmingham

Camden Conservatives leader Oliver Cooper wants to see the project scrapped

THE future of the High Speed 2 rail link, a project which has caused heartbreak in parts of Camden, has been hit by new doubts after Conservative figures – including former Mayor of London Boris Johnson – raised the idea of halting the scheme during the party’s conference here in Birmingham.

The sudden new focus on the bill for the rail link, which some now estimate will easily pierce the £100billion barrier, led to rail industry figures seeking belt-and-braces reassurances that the project was still a priority for the government.

For supporters, there is still confidence that with £4billion already spent on HS2 and a parliamentary vote in its favour, Theresa May will not move against the scheme. But behind the scenes, there were whispers that HS2, particularly sections of the northern route, could be on the table should the Conservatives end up in a leadership contest.

In that scenario, any emerging candidates for No 10 would likely have to say whether they still backed the project. And while suggesting HS2 is unlikely to lose the support of many Tory MPs, the theory doing the rounds at conference this week was that opposing the project could capture leadership backing from rebel MPs along the route who have long opposed the construction work in their constituencies. It could also give a leadership contender a theoretical blank cheque to promote other ideas before a vote of MPs.

Mr Johnson, who has been touted as a likely challenger to Mrs May in the light of his public criticism of her Chequers deal for Brexit, said in an interview with the Sunday Times at the start of conference: “There are projects we should have on transport in the north of the country that ought to take precedence over HS2.”

As the week went on, other prominent Conservatives made similar views known, including former leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom. Jacob Rees-Mogg, another high-profile rebel, said yesterday (Wednesday) that the government should “pull the plug” on the scheme.  He told New Civil Engineer magazine: “We must not fall foul of investing more time and money into something just because we have already invested a lot into it.”

The irony for anti-HS2 campaigners in Camden – one of the worst-affected areas – is that this positioning within the Conservative party may have breathed life into the debate, but comes with major work already underway. Residents have already been moved from their homes, pubs and hotels have been seized and shut down and the exhumation of graves in St James Gardens is about to begin.

While local MPs Sir Keir Starmer and Tulip Siddiq broke the Labour whip to vote against the HS2 work, the party is supportive of the project nationally; it had originally been the brainchild of Labour peer Andrew Adonis.

Photos circulated this week showed the scale of the work already undertaken in Camden and Birmingham. The city’s Conservative mayor, Andy Street, made a conspicuous visit to see HS2 work and to showcase how it was coming along.

Camden Conservative group leader Councillor Oliver Cooper said that writing off £4billion already spent on HS2 would not be easy, but that could not be a reason to plough in another £100billion. He said there had been “a huge upswell of support in the party” for axing the scheme, adding: “This year you’ve probably had more opposition to it at conference than other years, not just because it harms communities in Camden and Buckinghamshire, but also because it has become increasingly unaffordable for our country.”

The land around Euston – much of it already flattened – is seen as a prized opportunity site for the right developer, next door to the King’s Cross railwayland site. But if the scheme was spiked, a new debate could open over what should happen to the land. Cllr Cooper said if HS2 was axed then a significant

amount of money – coming from the savings – should go to properly compensating residents and businesses around Euston. He said that opposition was not simply stemming from a newspaper column written by Mr Johnson, who, he said, may have written it to “sweeten a deal for some members of Parliament in his current campaign”, adding that he had not gone as far as saying he would scrap it altogether. “

Saying it has flaws isn’t good enough,” said Cllr Cooper. “Everybody knows it has flaws. It’s five times over-budget, it hasn’t been delivered and it’s time to scrap it. I think every politician should be unashamed in saying that. Hopefully, some more will say it from the backbenches.”

Other local members, when asked, did not expand on the Camden group’s position of opposing HS2, although the joke was shared that Mr Johnson must have been briefed by his father, former MEP Stanley Johnson, a vocal opponent of the work while living near Regent’s Park.

Labour regeneration chief Councillor Danny Beales said he would “welcome a rethink” if the government was ready to look again at the wisdom of HS2, but believed this was unlikely due to the amount of money already spent. He said: “I’d welcome using the cash to properly fund an improved Euston station, which currently doesn’t have investment, as well as enabling us to then redevelop the now empty sites and homes.”

Business secretary Greg Clark said it was “important that we follow through” with HS2, although transport secretary Chris Grayling, notably to many observers of the debate, did not use his main hall speech to defend the project.

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