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Monday, May 18, 2020

The HS2 conundrum

In my experience of road and rail capital projects they often veer off-course, are subject to delay and overrun budgets. It seems that the bigger the project the worse this becomes. It is little surprise therefore to find that HS2 is suffering in this way or that serious questions are being asked about its future as a consequence.

The all party public accounts committee has had enough. They have accused the Department for Transport of hiding information about cost overruns and delays from MPs, in a way that has undermined confidence in the entire scheme.

As the Guardian reports they believe that they cannot be sure there will be no further cost increases, as the lessons from previous transport projects that have been dogged by spiralling bills and delays have not been learned:

In particular the MPs claim they were misled by the permanent secretary at the department, Bernadette Kelly, when she appeared before them in May 2019. By then, they say, she had been informed by Hs2 Ltd that it could not deliver phase one of the project – between London and Birmingham – to budget and on schedule. But when questioned she failed to pass on the information to the committee, they say.

The committee chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, 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 have exploded from £245m to £1.2bn.

“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.

The deputy chair, Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, was even more outspoken, accusing the department of a breach of its duty to parliament: “This report is one of the most critical that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

In principle establishing a new high-speed, high-capacity railway between London, Leeds and Manchester, via the West Midlands is a good thing. However, if the project is mismanaged and is plagued by delays, overspends and a lack of transparency then somebody needs to step in and sort it out. The committee has sounded the alarm bell. Will Ministers respond?
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