Welcome to another fun-packed year in HS2 Land, part 10

(… continued from Welcome to another fun-packed year in HS2 Land, part 9, posted on 3 Feb 2015).

One event that you don’t need to be particularly clairvoyant to be able to forecast will happen in 2015 is that the Davis Commission will publish its final report on the provision of additional runway capacity in south-eastern England. That the final report by the Committee was to be delivered in the summer of 2015 was established when its terms of reference were made public in November 2012.

The sceptics amongst us noted that this timescale put the consideration of what might be difficult recommendations for the Conservative Party to adopt until after the general election. Irrespective of what the Commission concluded, this would allow the 2010 Conservative Party Manifesto commitment to “stop the third runway” at Heathrow to be kept for the Parliament to which it refers – in the mind of a politician that would be a promise honoured!

We know, because the Davis Commission published an interim report in December 2013, that the final report is likely to recommend the expansion of runway facilities at either Heathrow or Gatwick. Whilst the possibility of a new hub airport being built in the Thames Estuary has not been entirely ruled out – it is seen by the Davis Commission as a proposal requiring further study – it does seem that the strong likelihood is that Heathrow will continue to be the UK’s dominant airport for the foreseeable future.

The role, if any, that HS2 might serve in improving the experience for the air traveller barely receives consideration in the Davis Commission’s interim report. It is not mentioned in the identified package of “surface transport improvements to make airports with spare capacity more attractive to airlines and passengers” (paragraph 37 in the Executive Summary of the report), and the only expansion proposal that is predicated upon HS2, expanding facilities at Birmingham Airport, was not short-listed by the Commission (paragraphs 6.60 to 6.63 in the main body of the report).

The plain truth is that the last vestiges of the case for a direct high speed link to Heathrow will, in every likelihood, disappear with the publishing of the Davis Commission’s final report. HS2 Ltd has never been able to, or never really wanted to, make a business case for this optional extra (see footnote 1), and the very small additional inconvenience of having to use Crossrail or the Heathrow Express for the final ten minutes of a journey from the North or the Midlands to Heathrow seems a reasonable compromise; certainly this is no more of an inconvenience than the expected HS2-HS1 link accommodation. The case that could be made for fast-linking Birmingham Airport to Heathrow to alleviate congestion at the latter has been turned down by the Commission, and it would appear that the Conservative Party will not require the small fig leaf that HS2 provided to, barely, hide its lack of an airports policy for the south-east of England in this current Parliament.

And yet HS2 Phase 1 is saddled with supporting “future-proofing” for connecting a possible spur to Heathrow, and this is the cause of much anxiety in West London. It is hampering efforts to propose mitigation, and the route for the spur being published means that blight is affecting those in its path.

What I fear is that the proposal for the spur will be kicked into the long grass after the Davis Commission has reported, but that it will not be definitively cancelled. This would mean that effects of both the Phase 1 future-proofing and the blight on the spur route will remain.

Moving on from Heathrow, one 2015 event that we now know that we can look forward too, assuming that HS2 Ltd delivers on a promise, is the publishing of the supplement to the Environmental Statement (ES); this will include all of the additional survey work that was not done in time to allow a complete ES to be deposited with the Phase 1 hybrid Bill. A planned issue date of summer 2015 was announced by HS2 Ltd to the HS2 Select Committee recently (see footnote 2). Of course, when this is published we will all get the chance to waste our time responding to the public consultation that will be triggered and, perhaps more profitably, will be able to deposit a new round of petitions.

Various comments made during the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee have led to an expectation that another important document will be published this year. We can predict, I think, that the Committee will produce an interim report on issues and decisions up to the dissolution of Parliament as a legacy for the Select Committee in the new Parliament, in case there should be any personnel changes.

Finally, I want to go out on a bit of a limb regarding my final item of crystal ball gazing. I think that it could well be announced towards the end of 2015 that HS2 Ltd is searching for a new non-executive chairman. I say this in the light of comments made last November by the present incumbent, Sir David Higgins, to the Transport Select Committee of the House of Commons (see footnote 3). I’m pretty sure that if I was in his position I would cut and run before it all gets too messy.


  1. The report on HS2 that was produced by HS2 Ltd for the Government in December 2009 estimated demand for direct high speed rail services to Heathrow from the West Midlands, North West, North and Scotland to be “just over one train load each way” per day (paragraph 3.3.10 of the report).
  2. This was advised by Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Timothy Mould QC, on the morning of 3rd February 2015 (see Q464 in the uncorrected transcript).
  3. When Sir David was asked by Jason McCartney MP at the Transport Select Committee’s oral evidence session held on Monday 17th November 2014 whether he would be “seeking a contract extension for another three or four years” when his present contract expires at the end of 2015, he replied that he would “want to see what progress we have made next calendar year and what support we have from any Government, whichever Government it is, to take the project forward” (see question Q64 in the transcript).

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