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HS2 boss told to cut costs
The new boss of the planned high speed rail link between London and the north has been tasked with finding ways to cut the estimated £50 billion cost of the scheme, David Cameron will announce today.
In a clear swipe at Labour, the Prime Minister will claim dithering over HS2 will condemn Britain to the slow lane, telling a conference of business leaders that "fortune favours the bold - not the weak and indecisive".
The scheme needs cross-party approval if it stands a chance of being built but shadow chancellor Ed Balls threw Labour's support into doubt by raising concerns about the spiralling costs earlier this year, insisting he would not sign a "blank cheque".
Mr Cameron will tell the CBI annual conference that the first task of the project's new boss, Sir David Higgins, will be to report on lowering costs and maximising benefits.
He is expected to say: "Britain is in a global race for jobs and wealth. Our infrastructure is decades out of date and we urgently need to invest and build.
"Those who want to delay or obstruct HS2 show a lack of vision. They are playing politics with Britain's prosperity. They are betraying everyone north of Watford. And they want to condemn Britain to the slow lane.
"We can either tell our grandchildren we made big, long-term decisions to build a better country... Or we can tell them we dithered for decades while the world raced ahead. That kind of no-can-do spirit will get us nowhere. Fortune favours the bold - not the weak and indecisive."
"I ask everyone across politics to put their own interests aside - and put the national interest first."
Mr Balls will tell the conference a Labour government would set up an independent infrastructure commission to end delays in major infrastructure projects but will reiterate that Labour's support for the Y-shaped route to Leeds and Manchester is "not at any cost".
Sir David, who takes over as HS2 chairman next year, believes the scheme can come in at "substantially" less than current estimates by trimming the £14bn earmarked for contigency costs.
Mr Cameron will tell the CBI: "Britain has shown it can build great infrastructure like HS1 or the Olympics on time and on budget. And with Sir David Higgins in charge - the man who built the Olympics - we will do that for the north-south line too.
"He has agreed that the first vital step will be to bring his penetrating eye and expertise to a specific task. To report on the costs. And to maximise the benefits for all parts of the country as quickly as possible. He has already said the line could come in "substantially" under the current budget. And he has also made it clear he needs cross-party support to do it."
Mr Balls will tell the CBI an infrastructure commission would "end dither and delay in infrastructure planning and build the consensus on infrastructure that we need to invest for the long-term".
He will say: "Labour supports HS2 and the idea of a new North-South rail link because of capacity constraints on the existing rail network. But our support for it is not at any cost.
"The Labour Party cannot - and will not - give the government a blank cheque. That is what you would expect from any credible official opposition seeing a Government desperately mismanaging a project. And that is what is happening here with the costs having shot up to £50 billion.
"As you at the CBI have said recently: 'The increased costs of HS2 are a matter of concern. For HS2 to go ahead it has to wash its face. The value for money test has to be properly applied.'
"We agree - and we will put the national interest and the taxpayer interest first. We will take a hard-headed look at the costs and benefits of the scheme to ensure this is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country."
Mr Balls will also call for the Davies Commission into airport capacity, including proposals for a third runway at Heathrow, to report before the 2015 election following recommendations by Sir John Armitt.
He will say: "We welcome the Howard Davies review and it is Labour's view that it should report before the general election and not after. Under the Armitt plan, it would not have been possible to set up the Davies review without proper cross-party consultation, or kick the report into the next parliament. And if any future government then were to sit on the recommendations, the Armitt plan would give a clear remit to the independent commission to chivvy and chase."