Boris Johnson has given the go-ahead to the £100bn flagship rail project High Speed 2.
He announced work on the hugely expensive scheme will continue after carrying out a review into whether it should proceed given costs have “exploded”.
The prime minister said the firm handling construction has not “distinguished itself” but that “poor management has not detracted from the fundamental value” of the plan.
There is “no doubt of the clinching case for high speed rail”, he added, promising to “restore discipline to the programme” by appointing a full-time minister to oversee its progress in Thursday’s cabinet reshuffle.
It puts the PM on a collision course with up to 60 Tory MPs
He confirmed work on Phase One – which runs from London Euston to Birmingham – and Phase2a – an extension to Crewe – would continue “on something approaching time and budget”.
Phase2b – which runs to Manchester and north east to Leeds – will be put under review and subsumed into the current “Northern powerhouse” rail project.
HS2 will run from London to the West Midlands and then further up to Crewe
But the decision puts him on a collision course with up to 60 Tory MPs in the home counties and middle England who are bitterly opposed to the project.
One, Andrew Bridgen, called the project “unloved, unwanted and grossly mismanaged” that “could well be an albatross around this government and the country’s neck”.
Another, Rob Butler, said he was “incredibly frustrated” given the “eye-watering costs” and “irreversible” destruction of ancient woodlands.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas added HS2 would “destroy or damage hundreds of important wildlife sites, areas of ancient woodland and local nature reserves”.
Some are concerned about the impact of ‘irreversible’ damage to ancient woodland
To placate his own backbenchers, Mr Johnson announced overnight a bonus £5bn of new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links for every UK region outside London over the next four years.
The package includes at least 4,000 new zero emission buses to promote greener commuting, over 250 miles of new cycle routes and dozens of new ‘Mini-Holland’ schemes, designed to make town centres safer and greener for cyclists and pedestrians.
The green light for HS2, which aims to slash journey time and dramatically increase capacity, will be seen as a move to repay voters who switched away from Labour to sweep the prime minister back into Number 10 in December.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of being “unwilling to make the scale of investment needed to revive parts of this country that have been decimated by successive Conservative governments”.
He accused ministers of being “unable to manage infrastructure projects” and being “incapable of keeping a lid on the costs”.
The cost was originally estimated at £3bn in 2009
Two of the biggest backers of HS2 have been the big-city mayors, Labour’s Andy Burnham of Greater Manchester and the Tories’ Andy Street in the West Midlands.
Travelling at up to 250mph, HS2 is designed to reduce journey times between London and Birmingham from 80 to 45 minutes and between London and Manchester from 128 to 68 minutes.
The cost was originally estimated at £3bn in 2009, then £56bn in 2013, but is now expected to cost £106bn, though the National Audit Office has said it is impossible to estimated with certainty what the final cost will be.
Mr Johnson appeared to give the game away on his thoughts about whether to continue with the rail project last month, when he told Daily Week News’ children’s current affairs programme FYI: “In a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging.”
Analysis by Joe Pike, political correspondent
Going ahead with HS2 is far easier than cancelling it.
That is the central political reality that has informed Boris Johnson’s big decision today.
A few months back, the prime minister was far less certain about what to do, with one key Downing Street aide telling me: “Publicly he supports it, privately he doesn’t.”
Work is already several years underway
He still is a relatively new prime minister at a key turning point in the history of the UK.
His post-Brexit rhetoric is full of themes of ambition, innovation and ‘levelling up’ across the four nations. Shelving HS2 would go against all of that.
As a close observer of the premierships of his predecessors, Mr Johnson realises that he is now at the peak of his political powers. It will only get more difficult to take tough decisions as the months go by.
As the most competitive of politicians, he wants a bigger and better legacy than Theresa May and David Cameron.
By following the path of former French President Francois Mitterrand with his “grand projects”, Boris Johnson believes in years to come he will be point to successes he started.
And as a student of history, he knows that with all enormous projects – whether it be the Channel Tunnel or the Olympic Park – the public eventually forget the long delays and exorbitant costs.
And all that remains is pride. He hopes HS2 will end up as a great civic triumph – and one he helped make happen.