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The ‘rabidly anti-HS2’ aide who has Rishi Sunak’s ear

If Rishi Sunak pulls the plug on the northern leg of HS2 as expected, it will vindicate one of his advisers, Andrew Gilligan, who has railed against the scheme for more than a decade.

Though Downing Street officials said all policy decisions in the Sunak administration stem from the prime minister himself, Gilligan, a former journalist, is to HS2’s supporters the bête noire lurking in the wings.

“Anything I could say about Andrew Gilligan would be unprintable,” said one former HS2 executive.

The bicycle-loving aide entered government four years ago as a transport adviser to former prime minister Boris Johnson. He was reappointed by Sunak earlier this year in a different policy brief.

Gilligan, 54, first made headlines nearly 20 years ago for his controversial BBC reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war.

After leaving the broadcaster, Gilligan worked for newspapers before reinventing himself in 2013 as cycling commissioner for Johnson as mayor of London. He briefly returned to journalism before reappearing at Johnson’s side in 2019, this time as a Downing Street transport adviser.

Andrew Gilligan first made headlines nearly 20 years ago for his BBC reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war © Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA

Gilligan’s appointment sent shivers through the High Speed 2 organisation.

“He has always been rabidly anti-HS2,” said one senior railway industry official.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, Gilligan argued that the arguments for HS2 had been based on “deeply shaky assumptions”.

“This line will not be green. It will not greatly benefit the economy. And, most remarkably of all, it will probably make your journey slower, not faster,” he wrote.

Later, he described the HS2 company as a “mini-dictatorship” and called the project a “disastrous scheme”.

Gilligan was seen by some as a peculiar personnel choice for Johnson, who had always been a gung-ho supporter of the biggest infrastructure project in Europe. But his appointment chimed with the growing concerns in Whitehall about the ever-rising costs of the scheme.

Johnson instigated in 2019 an official review of HS2, by former chair Douglas Oakervee, which found that the cost-benefit analysis of the project had nosedived.

With the cost spiralling upwards, Johnson in 2021 scrapped the eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds, a move that HS2 managers blamed on Gilligan’s influence.

Gilligan, pictured in 2016 with Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill, reinvented himself in 2013 as cycling commissioner for then mayor of London, Boris Johnson © James Gourley/Shutterstock

Another rail industry official said Gilligan’s relations with HS2 management started out badly and only worsened. “In the meetings with him he would just pick holes in the project, endlessly, there was nothing constructive,” they said.

Johnson also gave Gilligan free rein to negotiate Covid-19 bailouts for Transport for London — under the control of Labour mayor Sadiq Khan — which came with tough conditions attached.

Meanwhile he pressed for rail reforms, including the closure of what he called “1950s-style” ticket offices, that antagonised trade unions including the RMT. “I sometimes think Andrew only thinks he’s making progress if he’s pissing someone off,” said a former colleague.

Gilligan quit Downing Street late last year, at which point he wrote a pamphlet for the think-tank Policy Exchange, which appears to have influenced the already HS2-sceptic Sunak. He rejoined government under Sunak, having avoided Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership.

“He knows his stuff inside out, in some ways he is an eccentric character but he has real attention to detail, almost to a pedantic level,” said one Downing Street colleague. “And he has always had very strong views about high-speed rail.”

The Gilligan pamphlet said that £3bn a year could be saved by 2027-28 by cancelling “all sections of HS2 where main construction has not started” — equivalent to £44bn in total, albeit spread over 20 years.

“HS2 now costs more to build than the value of the benefits it will deliver,” he wrote. Indeed, the official benefit ratio had fallen to under 1.0 unless “wider economic impacts” were considered.

Meanwhile, Gilligan argued, half of HS2’s benefits went to London and the south-east, meaning that the project’s impact on “levelling up” Britain had been exaggerated.

Gilligan also highlighted the low public support for HS2 everywhere, including “the regions it supposedly benefits”. The project was sucking billions of pounds of capital spending out of the wider public transport budget, he concluded.

By cancelling part of it, Gilligan wrote in a foreshadowing of Sunak’s expected move to redirect HS2 money to other funding priorities in the north, the government would be “robbing the white elephant to pay the Red Wall”.

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