Transport experts have warned that the UK’s £56bn HS2 rail scheme faces an uncertain future under whoever replaces Theresa May as prime minister.
Downing Street insisted on Monday there would be no U-turn on the project despite reports of cabinet dissent over the initiative.
But Mrs May has announced that she will not lead the Conservative party into the next general election, which is due by 2022, prompting speculation about the policies her successor might pursue before the vote.
Some leading candidates for the top job are opposed to the scheme, including Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Liz Truss.
Others, such as Michael Gove, have privately indicated they would rethink HS2 given broader financial constraints. “No one in cabinet thinks it’s a good idea . . . it doesn’t float anyone’s boat,” said one senior Tory figure. “Most people are thinking, ‘It’s a waste of money. If I’m prime minister, I will can it’.”
Esther McVey, who resigned from the cabinet in November, said HS2 was a “huge waste” of taxpayers’ money.
“It will be out of date before completion and will destroy huge swaths of the countryside,” the former work and pensions secretary said. “Better transport infrastructure and connectivity across Britain should become one of the defining issues for post-Brexit Britain, rather than vanity projects like HS2.”
More than £4bn has been spent on preparatory work for the first phase of HS2, from London to Birmingham, which is due to be completed in 2026. Legislation to approve the extensions to Crewe, Manchester and Leeds has been delayed until 2020.
Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics, said the project was looking “very big and expensive” at a time of constrained public spending.
“A change of government, prime minister, or indeed pressures on public spending could lead to HS2 being abandoned,” he said. “HS2 theoretically offers longer-term rebalancing while the need for economic change is short-term.”
Number 10 said on Monday that the prime minister remained “fully committed” to the project. “HS2 is working with its supply chain to make sure the project is delivering within the budget set by the government,” a spokesperson said.
But Christian Wolmar, a transport expert, said the project was “vulnerable” to a change of prime minister in the coming months.
“It would cost several billion pounds to cancel it at this stage but they may take the view that this will save tens of billions in the long run,” he said. “I would hope they would put it into more essential infrastructure projects like improving existing train lines.”
A poll for Channel 4’s Dispatches by ComRes found only 20 per cent of voters want the new line built — with only 7 per cent expecting any direct benefits for themselves.
Stephen Glaister, former chair of the Office of Rail and Road, the sector regulator, told the programme that the government had failed to carry out big-picture analysis: “You might ask the question of what else could you do? You could give larger sums of money to Manchester, to Birmingham, to Newcastle and let them do as they saw best for their local communities.”
The Department for Transport has insisted HS2 will be built within its £56bn budget.
But an investigation by the National Audit Office last year found the cost of buying land for phase one, between London and Birmingham, had tripled in six years to more than £3bn. The NAO warned the cost could soar further.
Whistleblowers who were senior executives on the project allege they were ousted after warning that costs had not been properly estimated.
Terry Morgan, who chaired HS2 Ltd for four months last year, told the House of Lords economic affairs select committee last month that no one knew how much the project would cost, adding that “everybody has their own guesstimate” and “nobody knows, actually, the number”.
He said it was his personal view that HS2 should terminate at Old Oak Common in west London rather than Euston station in the city centre — at least initially — to save money.