BEIJING - British finance minister George Osborne on Thursday said bidding would open for £11.8 billion ($18 billion, 16.3 billion euros) in contracts to build a high-speed rail link in England. The High Speed Two (HS2) project aims to create faster links between London and cities to the north, starting with Birmingham.

Hoping to woo Chinese investment, Osborne announced the impending opening of seven new contracts in the southwestern city of Chengdu, at the end of a five-day visit. “It’s crucial that businesses and communities from across the UK feel the full benefit of forging closer economic links with China,” Osborne said, according to a British government statement.

Osborne argues that the rail link will boost economic development in the midlands and north of England, but critics fear the link will destroy woodlands and countryside and turn northern cities into commuter towns for London. “This government is committed to rebalancing our economy and building a Northern Powerhouse, and improving transport links and launching HS2 is key to supporting long-term economic growth across the North and Midlands,” Osborne said.

HS2 is yet to be finally approved by parliament but the eventual plan is to extend the line into the north of England to the cities of Manchester and Leeds.

The first stage of contracts will cover the construction of tunnels and the surface route between London and Birmingham, which is expected to cut journey times from one hour 20 minutes to 50 minutes.

Earlier in his trip, Osborne announced that Chinese central bank will issue yuan-denominated bonds in London, and said a feasibility study will look at linking the London and Shanghai stock exchanges.

The Chancellor is hoping to confirm Chinese investment into a new power plant at Hinkley Point in England, and has pledged a £2 billion government guarantee in a bid to secure a deal.

Campaigners criticised Osborne for his focus on investment over human rights on Wednesday as he visited Xinjiang in northwest China, homeland of the country’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority and the site of increased unrest in recent years.