A Cabinet minister has said it is his gut feeling that HS2 should go ahead as he described the rail project as a “key part” of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay’s comments come as ministers mull over whether or not to go ahead with the high-speed line, with a decision expected in the coming weeks.
Whitehall’s spending watchdog said last week that HS2 is over budget and behind schedule because its complexity and risks were under-estimated.
The National Audit Office (NAO) warned that it is impossible to “estimate with certainty what the final cost could be”.
However Mr Barclay told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that the project was key to the Government’s plans to raise the economic performance of all parts of the country.
“We have a strong commitment to levelling up all parts of the United Kingdom. High-speed two is a key part of that – not just from speed but more from a capacity point of view in the line.
“And that is a very clear commitment we have given the North.”
Asked whether his gut feeling was that the project should go ahead, he replied: “Yes.”
A Government-commissioned review led by former HS2 Ltd chairman Doug Oakervee leaked earlier last week stated that the project’s bill could reach £106 billion.
HS2 was allocated £56 billion in 2015.
#HS2 trains between #London and #Manchester will take just 67 mins and create the space for more local trains out of #Euston and Manchester Piccadilly. More seats and services for local journeys and quicker, more reliable long-distance trains. #MCIFUL#ManCity#FFC#FACuppic.twitter.com/8ymPxqdcOn
— HS2 Ltd (@HS2ltd) January 26, 2020
Phase One between London and Birmingham was due to open in 2026, but full services are now forecast to start between 2031 and 2036.
The NAO noted that the Department for Transport (DfT) set the available funding for the first phase in 2013, when there was only a “basic” design for the project.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said the Government will make a decision on whether to go ahead with the project in “weeks rather than months”.
Some £8 billion has already been spent on HS2.
Political leaders in northern England and business groups claim HS2 is vital to boosting transport links across the region and providing increased capacity on the overcrowded rail network.
Construction firms warn that scrapping it would cause major damage to the industry.
But opponents claim HS2 is too expensive and the money would be better spent elsewhere, while several environmental groups say it would cause huge damage to natural habitats and ancient woodland.