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HS2 ‘off course’ report welcomed by critics

AN updated HS2 report from the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts which is seriously critical of the project has been welcomed by critics.

The review by the committee of MPs from all sides of the House says the programme has ‘gone badly off-course and is now estimated to cost up to £88 billion, significantly more than the original budget of £55.7 billion’.

The figures are at 2015 prices, and the Committee says it is ‘unconvinced that there will not be further cost increases, such as those we have seen in Crossrail and many other programmes, especially given that the route and forecast cost of the northern sections of the proposed railway is still very uncertain and will remain so for years to come’.

It also notes that ‘public confidence in the programme has been undermined’.

Lord Tony Berkeley, who produced his own Dissenting Report earlier this year after he had been forced to stand down from the Oakerview HS2 Review team, claimed there was evidence of a cover-up over the true costs.

‘I am pleased that Public Accounts Committee has taken steps to investigate HS2, but it is clearly not enough.

‘Unfortunately, the report has failed to take into account the even earlier warnings that I, and others, gave the Government several years previously about the cost increases, the many senior whistle blowers who were silenced, and the failures of successive ministers to properly inform Parliament,’ he said.

He continued: ‘For example, on 16 May 2016, the then [transport secretary], Patrick McLaughlin, wrote to the then Chancellor George Osborne, stating that the Government could not keep to the HS2 budget, but suggested they obfuscate and keep this confidential.

‘HS2 Ltd. and those working on it at the DfT have had no regard for proper process or Parliament. As recently as last month, why did the DfT give the go ahead to begin building HS2 on 15 April when it must have known about the ongoing PAC review? It is very unlikely that Parliament would have given approval had it been provided with the necessary cost information in a timely manner.

‘The failure of the Accounting Officer to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and of parliamentary Privilege. Since there is even more detailed and earlier evidence than the PAC suggests, this makes these failures even more serious’.

Meg Hillier, the MP who chairs the Committee, said: ‘The Committee is concerned about how open the Department and HS2 Ltd executives have been in their account of this project. It is massively over budget and delayed before work has even begun. There is no excuse for hiding the nature and extent of the problems the project was facing from Parliament and the taxpayer. The Department and HS2 appear to have been blindsided by contact with reality – when Phase One started moving through Parliament, the predicted costs of necessary commitments to the communities affected exploded from £245 million to £1.2 billion. 

‘The Government unfortunately has a wealth of mistakes on major transport infrastructure to learn from, but it does not give confidence that it is finally going to take those lessons when this is its approach. In the six-monthly reports the Department has now agreed to give us, we want to see an honest, open account, and evidence of learning from past mistakes being applied.’

The Department for Transport said transport secretary Grant Shapps had been ‘clear that this project must go forward with a new approach to parliamentary reporting, with clear transparency, strengthened accountability to ministers, and tight control of costs.

‘We have comprehensively reset the HS2 programme, introducing a revised budget and funding regime, with significant reforms to ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner.’

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