The government has formally approved the construction of the new HS2 railway line, with the main works on the project set to start immediately.
The “notice to proceed” was confirmed by the Department for Transport early on Wednesday morning, allowing the project’s main civil works contractors to put spades in the ground.
HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson said: “We cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country.”
With the UK expected to enter a deep recession because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and measures taken to combat it, the project will provide work for the construction industry – which has been hit badly.
Governments often bring forward public works projects during recessions to provide employment and get money circulating in the economy.
Mark Thurston, chief executive of HS2 Ltd, said: “In these difficult times, todays announcement represents both an immediate boost to the construction industry – and the many millions of UK jobs that the industry supports – and an important investment in Britains future: levelling up the country, improving our transport network and changing the way we travel to help bring down carbon emissions and improve air quality for the next generation.
“HS2 has been over ten years in development and design. While the countrys focus is rightly on defeating Covid-19, the issuing of Notice to Proceed 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.”
Preparatory work on the project had already long begun, including ready the ground and the demolition of buildings. However, the green light for the constructions of bridges, tunnels and earthworks had been on hold while the project’s future was in doubt.
The Independent understands that most HS2 work sites closed down when the government introduced measures to combat Covid-19, but some have managed to re-open where it has been possible to take social distancing measures. Covid-19 lockdown measures do not include a blanket ban on construction work.
Boris Johnson, a longtime sceptic of HS2, said the project would go ahead in February, after a review he commissioned found it was the best way to improve rail capacity on the UK’s busiest travel corridors.
The project is a network of three railway links radiating from Birmingham: one to Manchester and the north west, one to Leeds via to East Midlands, and one to London. The first phase runs from London to Birmingham.
As well as speeding up journey times between cities, the line will allow more local and regional trains to serve smaller towns and cities by separating stopping services and intercity services – which currently mix together in an inefficient way.
High-speed will also be able to run on existing lines to destinations off the main network like Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Stafford.
The project has been dogged by escalating costs and delays, however, and proved controversial – including in Mr Johnson’s own Conservative party.