October 20, 2023
For those aspiring to specialise in public law, project finance, PPP, or litigation, the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project stands as a significant case study. This project encapsulates the challenges of politics, environmental issues, legal disputes, and budgetary constraints.

What Is HS2?

HS2, or High Speed 2, represents a significant expansion of the United Kingdom’s railway network, featuring high-speed tracks designed to drastically reduce travel times between major cities. Initiated to address the increasing demand for rail capacity across the UK, HS2 has been promised to be more than just a new railway system—it was meant to be a comprehensive transport and economic regeneration project. 

With plans for the network to connect London to the Midlands, the North of England, and potentially Scotland, HS2 was envisaged to serve as a catalyst for economic growth, help in reducing carbon emissions by offering a more attractive travel alternative to flights and car journeys, and alleviate the pressure on the existing, and often overburdened, rail networks. However, on October 4, 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the decision to scrap this ambitious project. So where did it all go wrong?

A Timeline Of Challenges

  • December 2009: Then Prime MinisterGordon Brown laid the foundation with a proposed £20bn investment for a high-speed rail network.
  • May 2010: The coalition government backed HS2, aligning it with a green economic vision.
  • January 2012: Greening approved a Y-shaped network with costs initially projected at £32.7bn. This figure jumped to nearly £50bn by June 2013.
  • 2014-2016: The years were marked by fluctuating costs, legal tussles, and environmental debates. The Shimmer housing estate mishap in 2016 highlighted HS2 Ltd’s oversights.
  • 2017-2019: Allegations of mismanagement and cost overruns dominated discussions. Allan Cook’s report forecasted delays until 2040 with expenses potentially reaching £88bn.
  • 2020-2021: Despite financial concerns, Boris Johnson championed HS2, even as estimates soared to £106bn. Environmental protests grew, leading to notable political repercussions.
  • 2022-2023: HS2 continued to face delays and budgetary concerns, casting shadows on its viability.
  • October 2023: Current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the decision to scrap the northern leg or the ‘rest of the HS2 project’. The budget for HS2 will now supposedly be reinvested in new transport projects in the North and the Midlands. 

HS2: Legal Hurdles And Debates

Britain’s long-standing affair with railways had paved the way for HS2, which aimed to redefine rail connectivity. The vision in 2012 was grand, but the subsequent decade, laden with political upheavals, Brexit, and a global pandemic, influenced public perception. A YouGov survey depicted a divided nation regarding HS2’s merits.

Detractors pinpointed the skyrocketing expenses, environmental toll, and the project’s relevance in a world transitioning to remote work. Proponents emphasised its potential for job creation, economic growth, and as a cornerstone for the UK’s infrastructural advancement. The rise of remote work post-Covid further fueled these debates. Yet, prominent political figures saw HS2 as instrumental for the nation’s progress.

HS2 had grappled with procurement dilemmas, legal challenges, and High Court proceedings. Notable issues had included Talgo’s 2018 legal challenge and Bechtel’s reservations regarding contract awards.

With the completion of Phase 1 anticipated between 2028-2031 and the subsequent phase possibly extending to 2040, public sentiment remained divided.

On the legal front, Mark Elsey, a senior partner at Ashurst, a leading firm Ashurst actively engaged with HS2, delved deep into project law and emphasised the critical role of the Hybrid Bill process, which demanded specialised legal expertise. Infrastructure projects entailed multifaceted considerations, from site selection and environmental consequences to construction logistics and financing strategies. HS2’s journey had been punctuated by  various procurement challenges and contentious land acquisition policies, causing concerns even within the political realm.


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The Decision To Scrap HS2

On October 4, 2023, UK PM Rishi Sunak, in a landmark decision, announced the cancellation of the HS2 project’s Birmingham to Manchester segment during his speech at the Conservative party conference. He underscored the economic non-viability of the over-budget project, emphasising a courageous shift in policy in light of evolving facts. The substantial £36 billion, initially allocated for HS2, is now earmarked for extensive transport upgrades nationwide, encompassing numerous road projects. 

Boris Johnson stood alongside David Cameron in criticising Rishi Sunak’s choice to cancel the northern extension of HS2, labelling it a ‘wrong’ decision that resulted in forfeiting a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity.’ Mr. Cameron cautioned that scaling back the high-speed rail endeavour would significantly impede the formation of political consensus for upcoming long-term initiatives. HS2 was slated to stretch from Euston in central London to Birmingham. However, plans to extend beyond the West Midlands were scrapped, leaving areas, including Manchester, disconnected from the high-speed network. This curtailment sparked concerns over future infrastructural ventures and regional connectivity.

What Is Projects Law?

Projects law is a specialised legal domain dedicated to the oversight, management, and implementation of major projects, ranging from infrastructure to energy to real estate. It uniquely merges various aspects of law, including property, environmental, planning, commercial, and financial. The essence of projects law is to streamline the process from an idea’s inception to its completion, ensuring all legal requirements are met and potential risks are mitigated.

The HS2 case intersects prominently with project law, primarily because it involves intricate contractual frameworks, procurement regulations, and compliance with environmental and planning laws. Such large-scale infrastructure endeavours necessitate extensive legal oversight to navigate the complexities of execution and governance, ensuring adherence to national and international standards and regulations.

What Is A Projects Lawyer?

A projects lawyer plays an instrumental role in navigating the multifaceted landscape of large-scale projects. Their responsibilities are vast and varied, encapsulating the following key aspects:

  • Risk Management: Projects invariably come with an array of potential risks, from environmental to financial. Lawyers assess these risks early on, advising clients on mitigation strategies and ensuring compliance with all regulations.
  • Contractual Expertise: Drafting, reviewing, and negotiating contracts are foundational to the role. Whether it’s engaging with contractors, liaising with governments, or dealing with investors, a projects lawyer ensures that all agreements are sound, fair, and enforceable.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Projects, especially those of significant scale like HS2, often involve layers of regulatory scrutiny. Lawyers guide projects through the necessary permissions, ensuring every phase adheres to local, national, and even international standards.
  • Stakeholder Management: A hallmark of large projects is the multitude of stakeholders involved. Lawyers serve as intermediaries, ensuring smooth communication and alignment of interests between parties, from local communities to international investors.
  • Dispute Resolution: Should disagreements arise, projects lawyers are equipped to manage conflicts, whether through negotiation, mediation, or litigation. Their in-depth knowledge of the project’s intricacies places them in an optimal position to advocate for their client’s interests.
  • Environmental Considerations: With an increasing global emphasis on sustainability, projects lawyers must be adept at understanding and navigating environmental regulations. They advise on the project’s environmental footprint, potential conservation issues, and compliance with green standards.

Key Takeaways

The HS2 project, emblematic of ambition clashing with real-world complexities, underscores the imperative role of legal acumen in charting the course of large-scale infrastructure endeavours. The journey, marked by legal, environmental, and financial hurdles, epitomises the challenges facing such ventures in the modern landscape. For legal practitioners, HS2 is a stark reminder of the multifarious nature of project law, demanding an interdisciplinary approach to navigate regulatory, financial, and societal concerns.

Commercial Awareness Questions

Here’s our round-up of questions to challenge you to look more deeply into this topic and help you prepare for any upcoming interviews:

  • Evaluate the economic and political factors that led to the decision to cancel the northern extension of the HS2 project in 2023.
  • Examine the legal intricacies of the Hybrid Bill process and its role in large-scale infrastructure projects. What legal expertise is required to successfully navigate this process?
  • Examine the concept of risk management in the context of projects law, with a focus on HS2. How do projects lawyers identify and mitigate risks, and what are the potential legal consequences of failing to do so in a project of this scale?
  • How can projects lawyers address environmental concerns and ensure compliance with green standards while preserving the economic viability of such projects?


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