Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander last week cast fresh doubts over whether the government will be able to keep its promise to pass the High Speed 2 (HS2) hybrid bill before the next General Election.
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Alexander’s comments at the ICE’s transport conference at One Great George Street, London suggested the hybrid bill may not be fully enacted by 2015.
Alexander refused to categorically re-affirm the government’s pledge to push the hybrid bill through before then, when he responded to a question from Bechtel delivery manager for rail projects Lawrie Quinn.
“Our intention is to get the hybrid bill well on its way during this parliament,” Alexander said.
He then implied that there was a lack of confidence that the legislative process would run smoothly.
“I’m not an expert on the hybrid bill process, which is a rather a complicated legislative process,” said Alexander. “We’d certainly like to get it as far through the legislative process as possible during this parliament and that’s what we’re working to do.”
His comments will do little to rebuff concerns expressed by industry insiders that the government’s has been wildly optimistic about the schedule for pushing the bill through.
The government aims to introduce the hybrid bill for phase one from London to Birmingham at the end of this year and obtain Royal Assent in 2015, according to promoter HS2 Ltd.
As a result there are only 250 parliamentary days to debate the bill, take it through Houses of Commons and Lords select committees, make amendments and get the bill approved by the government’s 2015 deadline.
In July, one rail industry insider told NCE that this is far less than it took the Crossrail project to get Royal Assent and was therefore “totally unrealistic” (NCE 11-18 July).
Alexander’s remarks come at an awkward time for the project.
The recent message from the coalition and from HS2 Ltd’s newly appointed chairman David Higgins has been that the mega-project will be delivered ahead of the projected timeframe. This anticipates that phase one from London to Birmingham will open in 2026 with phase 2 between Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds opening in 2032. Higgins has also said that it will be built for less than its £50bn price tag.
Alexander was keen to stress that progress on the HS2 paving bill was helping to move the scheme forward.
The paving bill will enable the government to release funding for the project before the hybrid bill, which will give full planning permission, is passed.
“You will know that there is a paving bill under way,” he said. “The paving bill is there to set the process in motion to deliver the parliamentary consensus that is needed to release the funds to get the project started.
“That’s well under way and had a strong majority at second reading [on 26 June].
“We will be making sure that the hybrid bill is delivered as quickly as we can. But by passing the paving bill, I think you have a clear statement from parliament that this is a project that has support and that is certainly the way we intend to continue.”
“I think that by choosing to bring forward a paving bill we are able to, if you like, take some of the weight off the hybrid bill in terms of the demonstration of consensus and the releasing of funds. Otherwise we’d have to wait for that larger piece of legislation before we have those funds,” he added.
UK SKILLS BOOST FOR HS2
The UK has “enormous project management skills” that will enable delivery of High Speed 2 on time and on budget, Alexander told the conference.
“We’ve made sure we’ve learned the lessons from our most successful project of recent years - the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics,” he said.
“So… the £42.6bn High Speed 2 budget, which we set and established in June, includes within it £14.4bn of contingency.
“There are mechanisms within the Treasury and the Department for Transport to keep those costs under control. I want to see this project delivered under budget and returning money to the taxpayer.”