25th Oct, 2020

FRONT PAGE: Boris backs HS2 - Coventry Observer interviews PM on high speed rail, local jobs, Brexit and education

John Carlon 21st Nov, 2019 Updated: 21st Nov, 2019

PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson admitted he is ‘reluctant to scrap HS2’ when he spoke with the Observer during his visit to the Coventry area.

The Conservative leader delivered his first major election campaign speech at the London Electric Vehicle factory at Ansty Park (November 13).

During his visit, we challenged him over the delay to publication of an important review into the controversial HS2 high speed rail project – 54 kilometres of which will cut through the Coventry and Warwickshire region onto a new station near the NEC.

Our question came soon after draft findings of the Oakervee review – billed by the Prime Minister as a final ‘go-ahead or scrap it’ review of HS2 – were leaked to the national media.

It has reportedly found the costly rail project should still go-ahead, despite widespread protests that the review itself was a political stitch-up.

Mr Johnson told us: “Any new government that’s come in with something that’s costing the thick end of £100 billion, the responsible thing to do is to get a proper review of that project.

“What I wanted Lord Oakervee (leader of the HS2 commission) to do is to look at the profiling of the spend, the sums that were being spent and where it was being spent, and to see whether the taxpayer is getting value for money. He is going to report on that a bit later on.

“You have to ask if it is being profiled in the right way, and if you should be saving money, asking if there ways of doing it better.

“If it’s a massive national project involving a huge new piece of infrastructure, in theory for the long-term benefit of the country, then I am very reluctant instinctively to just scrap it.

“We are going to look at the cost, and if we can save money we will.”

Mr Johnson later said on an ITV leaders’ debate on Tuesday night his government, if elected, would invest in high speed rail.

Lord Douglas Oakervee is a former chief executive of HS2 Ltd and is seen by opponents as one of HS2’s main proponents.

The review’s deputy chairman Lord Berkeley recently resigned and criticised how the review was being influenced and handled.

Stop HS2 campaigners in this region have pointed out how preliminary works had continued around Kenilworth, Stoneleigh, Cubbington and elsewhere during the review.

The review of HS2 was first mooted by Mr Johnson during his campaign to become Conservative party leader and therefore Prime Minister – a move seen by some as political opportunism and fence-sitting.

A leaked draft copy was revealed to The Times last week, which show the project has been recommended to go ahead despite spiralling costs reaching £88billion.

During his tour of the LEVC factory, where the latest models of all-electric London taxis are built, Mr Johnson spoke of his warm relationship with company owner Chairman Li, who bought the heritage Coventry manufacturer in 2012.

Asked by us if he felt comfortable having British Steel and London taxis run by Chinese companies, he said: “When it comes to critical national infrastructure, particularity telecoms, you have to make sure you strike a careful balance in being able to attract investment but not jeopardise our security co-operation with our very valuable Five Eyes partners.

“When it comes to investment in the London Taxi Company, or British Steel, the strategic concerns are perhaps less worrying.

“In an ideal world I would want UK ownership. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful opportunities and we are doing our best to attract those opportunities from around the world.

“I look at business here in the West Midlands and the history of Jaguar Land Rover, and in the last 20 years I would say the Tata investment did help to make things a lot better. They were very progressive.

“You have got to have an open and dynamic economy.”

The Prime Minister used his visit to push for his Brexit deal, for the sake of Britain’s ‘psychological health’.

Mr Johnson also turned his guns on the possibility of a post-election ‘Corbyn-Sturgeon technicolour coalition of chaos… that would cause more dither and delay.’

The PM laid out his plans for a green agenda, supporting electric vehicles, cycling infrastructure, tree planting and clean air.

Speaking to workers at the factory, he hailed the opportunities he believes will come from his Brexit deal: “We will maximise all the opportunities of Brexit, from freeports to free trade deals, from cutting VAT on tampons to banning the cruel export of live animals.

“We can then take back control of our money, our borders and our laws.”

He refused to apologise to residents of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire hit by damaging floods – where his delayed reaction to the deluge has been criticised.

Spending promises made during the visit included £2billion for colleges, £780million for special educational needs and £18billion for research and development over the next parliament.

Asked by us if the funds would compensate regional universities for losing access to European research funding and free movement of staff across the EU, Mr Johnson said: “It’s perfectly open for us to participate in all the European programmes. Researchers come from across the world and we will maintain an open and welcoming system.

“I am in favour of immigration by talented people to this country, but it is important to have democratic control.

“Postgraduates will find it easier to stay on and get jobs, so they don’t run into visa problems. We have announced a big expansion in Tier 2 visas for scientists and academics so they find it easier as well.

“We will ensure that this country is more outward looking than we have been before.”

The general election takes place on December 12.

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