Construction work on controversial rail project HS2 has been given the green light to begin despite the current coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
The high speed rail link was approved by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February after uncertainty about whether it would go ahead at all.
Work on the four work packages, which involve many of the UK’s largest construction firms, will commence in line with the government’s social distancing guidelines.
HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson said: “While the government’s top priority is rightly to combat the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS and save lives, we cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country.
“Following the decision earlier this year to proceed with the project, this next step provides thousands of construction workers and businesses across the country with certainty at a time when they need it, and means that work can truly begin on delivering this transformational project”.
The chief executive of the company in charge of the project said the decision was a “welcome boost” for the industry:
“While the country’s focus is rightly on defeating COVID-19, the [decision] today ensures that our contractors and their supply chains have the confidence that they can commit to building HS2, generating thousands of skilled jobs across the country as we recover from the pandemic”, Mark Thurston said.
However the decision met with incredulity from some quarters. Dr Richard Wellings, head of transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:
“The economic case for HS2 was always weak. With the country in the midst of a Covid-19 induced economic downturn, the cost of this rail project – predicted to reach a mammoth £106bn – is simply unjustifiable.
“At a time of crisis, the government should not be spending taxpayers’ money on deeply unpopular vanity projects that offer very limited value for money.”
Construction workers union GMB welcomed the decision, but said that employees’ safety had to be “the overriding priority”:
“Construction should be conditional on rigorous observation of social distancing, provision of personal protective equipment where required, individualised risk assessments for workers with underlying conditions, and mandatory dialogue between contractors of all levels and recognised unions”.
Throughout its 10-year lifespan the HS2 project has been plagued by delays and spiralling costs.
Johnson’s decision to go ahead with the project came despite the swelling budget, and is seen as key to the Conservative government’s “levelling up agenda”.
Contractors cheered the decision. BAM Nuttall chief executive Stephen Fox said: “The notice to proceed for HS2 is extremely positive news, particularly at this difficult time for the country.”
Balfour Beatty chief executive Leo Quinn added: “HS2 is a transformational infrastructure scheme, underpinning both the economic resilience and future growth of the nation, during these unprecedented and challenging times”.