Skip to content
Search
Type
Infrastructure blog

What can be learned from the cancellation of HS2’s northern leg?

Date
25 April 2024

The ICE is launching a programme to understand why the UK’s flagship rail project was cut short.

What can be learned from the cancellation of HS2’s northern leg?
A key focus of this Next Steps programme is on how decisions were made. Image credit: HS2

The cancellation of the northern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2) after 15 years of development has left a gap in the UK’s transport network.

It will result in an incomplete rail line that could hardly improve services to the North.

It’s also raised uncertainty about whether the UK can deliver major infrastructure projects.

How and why did it reach this point? And what lessons can we take from this?

The ICE has launched a Next Steps programme to answer those questions.

I was asked to chair the steering group for this work, and have gained an incredible amount of insight during this time.

Question Time debate

An expert group of policymakers, senior infrastructure professionals and academics will debate the lessons to be learned from HS2.

This panel debate is co-hosted by the ICE and the Civil Engineers Club (CEC).

Sign up online for the event

Emerging lessons

Over recent weeks, the steering group has been speaking with stakeholders to understand the context, factors and key decisions that may have resulted in HS2’s northern leg cancellation.

Our emerging findings have been published in a briefing paper.

We know this isn’t the complete story. We want to use this paper as a way to prompt constructive challenge and understand more fully what can be learned.

Nonetheless, that work has identified several emerging lessons:

  • There is a need for better corporate governance on who makes decisions, and how and when these decisions are made.
  • There is a need for stronger client and departmental capability – particularly on technical assurance and ‘owning the project’.
  • The contracting approach did not set the project up for best-practice delivery.
  • Major projects and programmes require clarity and consistency on outcomes to achieve political and public buy-in.
  • Any programme of this scale and significance needs to spend more time in development.

A prime minister’s call – but should it have been?

A key focus of this Next Steps programme is on how decisions were made – from the initial approval to proceed with HS2 up to the cancellation of the northern leg.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made that decision last year, citing costs and changing circumstances.

But it’s significant that, in the UK’s parliamentary system, he alone could make it.

The only concern was how much cancelling the line would cost him politically .

In this case, political support for HS2 was evaporating and public opinion was divided.

Why did political support evaporate?

The reasons for that sit in how the strategic case for the project was initially packaged and sold.

Concessions were made in Parliament to gain political support.

This enabled HS2 supporters to move it forward quickly. It also secured support for the planning approval process and boosted the business case.

But it meant there was too little time and attention given to examining the options and need for HS2 and selling a consistent strategic story.

The tactical nature of political support for the project meant it was ultimately fairly shallow.

Combined with spiralling costs and the high turnover of politicians overseeing HS2, it made the prime minister’s decision much easier.

Recognising the positive lessons too

Unfortunately, the negativity surrounding HS2 has somewhat overshadowed the positive outcomes already arising from the project.

It’s generated investment in businesses, communities and transport links along the route.

Thousands of workers have been trained and upskilled and innovation in delivery practices pushed forward.

Indeed, what’s been achieved so far on HS2 Phase 1 shows the civil engineering and construction capability in the UK to deliver a project of this scale.

Those achievements must be captured and repeated as well.

Improving UK infrastructure delivery is crucial

Applying those lessons is so important because developing the right infrastructure is key to the UK’s economic, environmental and social challenges.

But the cost of delivering infrastructure projects in the UK is already high by international standards.

And high inflation is pushing governments to find ways to deliver more at lower cost.

Uncertainty has also weakened public confidence they will get the infrastructure – and the benefits from it – they have been promised.

In the race to net zero, public engagement and support for infrastructure projects is more important than ever.

In that context, the scale and ambition of HS2 makes understanding its failures and successes relevant for the UK and to governments around the world.

We want to hear from you

Through Next Steps programmes, the ICE convenes global public debates to discuss what needs to happen next on key policy issues affecting civil engineering and society.

This programme focuses on decision-making in planning, procurement and delivery on HS2, and the people, culture and context in which those decisions were made.

The briefing paper provides a scene setter for discussing lessons to be learned from HS2’s cancellation.

Read the briefing paper

Attend the panel debate

The ICE wants to hear responses from infrastructure professionals and other experts to the issues set out in the paper.

These will inform an updated briefing paper to be published in the summer.

In particular, we want to hear insights and evidence we may have missed and challenges to these initial findings.

Please contact [email protected] to share your views by 31 May 2024.

  • Prof CK Mak , honorary professor at University of Hong Kong