Chancellor George Osborne has launched the bidding process for the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail project, even though Parliament has yet to greenlight it.
Announcing the news in the city of Chengdu on the latest leg of his trade mission to China, Osborne urged Chinese companies to bid for seven contracts, worth £11.8bn, to build bridges, tunnels and earthworks on the first phase of the line between London, Birmingham and the North.
This is despite the fact that the HS2 Bill has not yet completed its passage through Parliament. Although the Chancellor said final contracts would not be signed until the bill received Royal Assent, anti-HS2 campaigners slammed the announcement as premature.
HS2 Action Alliance spokesman, Richard Houghton, said: "You shouldn't be issuing contracts when you don't have the money. This was meant to be a project that was going to not only build northern economies but also create jobs for British people. If the contracts are going to the Chinese it makes a nonsense of that claim."
Another campaign group, Stop HS2, said that cost overruns on China's own high-speed rail expansion, as well as a lack of sustainable growth and inability to achieve the predicted passenger numbers, should "ring very loud alarm bells" for Mr Osborne.
Campaign manager, Joe Rukin, said: "Sadly our Chancellor wants to jump into bed with the Chinese on this highly suspect project."
Officials defended the decision, insisting that British contractors would not lose out as a result.
"We've made it a priority to engage with British firms to ensure they are well-placed to compete for the opportunities offered by HS2," a Government spokesman said. "But it's also crucial that we learn lessons and take advantage of international expertise and efficiencies where they have a history of building high-speed rail."
Osborne also took the opportunity to invite pitches for more than £24bn of investment opportunities in the region he has dubbed the "Northern Powerhouse", including infrastructure schemes such as the Atlantic Gateway connecting the Port of Liverpool to the City of Manchester and a proposed Science Central development in Newcastle.
"We are truly entering a golden era of co-operation between our two countries and it's crucial that businesses and communities from across the UK feel the full benefit of forging closer economic links with China," he said.